Galatians 2: The Conference at Jerusalem

 •  7 min. read  •  grade level: 8
We come now to one of the most intensely important times in the history of the Church of God. Are the Gentiles to be circumcised? Are they to be under the law?
Before we speak about the conference at which these questions were decided, we must try and make clear one or two matters that will help us to understand the chapter before us. If you will look at the map, you will see two important cities: Jerusalem in the south and Antioch in Syria in the north. Jerusalem, as you know, for many hundreds of years had been the one place in all the world that God had chosen to put His name: there was His holy temple, and there God dwelt on earth among His people Israel. So Jerusalem in the eyes of the Jewish Christians was the religious center of the world. To Jerusalem the Jews, who had been scattered everywhere, returned from all over the world to worship at the feasts. Those who lived in Jerusalem were mostly Jews, and so those who composed the assembly in Jerusalem were mostly Jewish Christians, and we know that a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:77And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:7).)
Those who lived at Antioch were, on the other hand, mostly Gentiles. In Acts 11:19-3019Now they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen travelled as far as Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to none but unto the Jews only. 20And some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, which, when they were come to Antioch, spake unto the Grecians, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord. 22Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem: and they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch. 23Who, when he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad, and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord. 24For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith: and much people was added unto the Lord. 25Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus, for to seek Saul: 26And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch. 27And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch. 28And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be great dearth throughout all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar. 29Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judea: 30Which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul. (Acts 11:19‑30) we read the story of the way the gospel first came to Antioch. You remember Saul helped to kill Stephen, and after Stephen’s death, Saul, and no doubt others, persecuted the Christians in Jerusalem very fiercely. On account of this, many of the Christians were scattered abroad and traveled to different places; one of these places was Antioch. At first they preached the good news only to the Jews, but “some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, which, when they were come to Antioch, spake unto the Grecians, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord. Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem: and they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch. Who, when he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad, and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord. For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith: and much people was added unto the Lord. Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus, for to seek Saul: and when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch” (Acts 11:20-2620And some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, which, when they were come to Antioch, spake unto the Grecians, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord. 22Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem: and they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch. 23Who, when he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad, and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord. 24For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith: and much people was added unto the Lord. 25Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus, for to seek Saul: 26And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch. (Acts 11:20‑26)).
In this way Antioch became the chief center for the Gentile Christians just as Jerusalem was the chief center for the Jewish Christians. In Acts 13:11Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. (Acts 13:1) we read of the prophets and teachers at Antioch, and we see some of these were Jews, but some were almost certainly Gentiles. Paul and Barnabas are mentioned in these verses, and we can understand the very warm love that must have grown up between Paul and the assembly at Antioch. You will remember Paul and Barnabas went out from Antioch on their first missionary journey, and they returned again to this city.
The Jewish Christians all had the greatest reverence for the temple and for everything connected with it, including the Jewish feasts, the law and the various ceremonies of the Jewish religion. When they became Christians, they did not leave these things behind, but they still circumcised their children, they still kept the feasts, and were still “zealous of the law”. There were many thousands of Jewish believers in Jerusalem who were like this. (See Acts 21:2020And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord, and said unto him, Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law: (Acts 21:20).)
The Gentile Christians, on the other hand, knew nothing of all these things. They did not circumcise their children. They did not keep the feasts; and they had never been under the law.
You will understand how very easily a great division might have come into the Church of God, forming, on the one hand, a Jewish church with its center at Jerusalem and, on the other hand, a Gentile church with its center at Antioch. We in China can very easily understand how jealousy and rivalry came in between the Jews and the Gentiles, just as we have seen it come in some parts between the Chinese and the foreign Christians, so that in some parts an “Independent Chinese Church” has been formed.
After the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, God sent the Holy Spirit to dwell in His people on earth. The Holy Spirit then united every true believer into one body (1 Cor. 12:1313For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:13)), which the New Testament calls “the Church” or “the Assembly.” The Greek word means “called out ones” and it tells us that God called those who believe in His Son out from this world to form one new body, the Church. The believers may have been Jews or Gentiles, but in Eph. 2 we find that the Lord Jesus has “broken down the middle wall of partition” between the Jews and the Gentiles, “for to make in Himself of twain one new man, so making peace; and that He might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby” (Eph. 2:14-1614For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; 15Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; 16And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: (Ephesians 2:14‑16)). In Eph. 4:4-64There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; 5One Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. (Ephesians 4:4‑6) we read, “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.” So we see that in God’s sight we are all one in Christ Jesus, whether Jew or Gentile, whether Chinese or foreign. There is no such thing in the Scriptures as a Jewish church or a Gentile church, a Chinese church or a foreign church. “An independent church” is something invented by man, not formed by God.
The gospel of God was promised before by His prophets in the Holy Scriptures (Rom. 1:22(Which he had promised afore by his prophets in the holy scriptures,) (Romans 1:2)), but the mystery of the Church of God was not revealed in the Old Testament. It was hidden “from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to His saints” (Col. 1:2626Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints: (Colossians 1:26)). (See also Eph. 3:9, 5:25-32.) Here we read that the Lord nourishes and cherishes the Church: “for we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones” (Eph. 5:3030For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. (Ephesians 5:30)). Christ is the Head (Eph. 5:2323For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. (Ephesians 5:23); Col. 1:1818And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence. (Colossians 1:18)); the Church is His body. When we eat the Lord’s supper, we have one loaf, which shows forth, on the one hand, the Lord’s body given for us, and, on the other, it speaks of the one body, the Church: “We, being many, are one loaf, one body” (1 Cor. 10:1717For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread. (1 Corinthians 10:17)).JND. Sometimes men use a slice of bread for the Lord’s Supper, or small squares of bread cut up. These things deny the one body, instead of showing it forth. Also the one loaf could not be made of separate particles, like grains of rice. God does not see the Church of God as a society of separate individuals; but as a human body is one, so the Church of God is one.
The Lord Jesus revealed this mystery to Paul. You remember when Saul was persecuting the Christians, the Lord said to him “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou ME?” (Acts 26:1414And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. (Acts 26:14)). In this question the Lord showed that the Church is one with Himself.
In the world today there are three classes: the Jews, the Gentiles, and the Church of God. (1 Cor. 10:3232Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God: (1 Corinthians 10:32).) When a Jew or a Gentile believes in the Lord Jesus Christ, he then immediately becomes part of the Church of God. He does not “join a church,” but the Holy Spirit joins him to “the one body, the Church.” In the New Testament we only read of “the Church of God,” (vs. 13) and every true believer in Christ belongs to that Church. God sees him no longer as a Jew or a Gentile. Now his citizenship is in heaven. (Phil. 3:2020For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: (Philippians 3:20).) He is not of the world, as Christ was not of the world. (John 17:1414I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. (John 17:14).)
It may seem as though we had turned aside from the subject of our epistle to speak of these things, but I do not see how we can truly understand the conference at Jerusalem, of which we must now speak, if we do not understand something of these truths. The Jewish believers were very slow about receiving these truths of the Church of God, and, alas, in our own day, we find that many true believers are ignorant of these same things.
We will now, with God’s help, return to our epistle, and in the next chapter consider Paul’s next visit to Jerusalem.