What happened at Jerusalem?
These two portions of Holy Scripture are frequently passed over lightly, because they are considered only as brief instances in the marvelous history of the early church. But these two chapters record the first serious crisis that arose in the church of our Savior, and, though there are portions within these two chapters that require careful comparative study in order to understand them, we will be greatly rewarded if we will apply ourselves in their study.
††††† During the days of the Apostles, and early in the ministry of the Apostle Paul, the church had to undergo a very trying crisis. That church, which was on the Day of Pentecost ďall with one accord,Ē was seriously divided. As persecutions scattered the early believers into various parts of the world, so also was scattered the precious seed of the gospel, and many converts were made among the Gentiles. Moreover, Paul had been converted, made an Apostle, and was sent to preach the gospel among the Gentiles; and many more Gentiles were converted.
††††† Meantime, there were some men of the sect of the Pharisees who had falsely embraced Christianity. That is to say, they had joined the church, but through subtlety. They did not really embrace the gospel of Godís free and sovereign grace in Christ, but mixed with the gospel the various ceremonies and works of the law. Many were so thoroughly corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ that they embraced the damning legalism of the Pharisees. There were some who said, ďExcept ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.Ē
††††† Under the old Jewish economy, circumcision had both a moral and a ceremonial significance. For them, to do away with circumcision was to do away with the whole Mosaic law. Many of them were not quite ready for this, as Paulís letter to the Hebrews clearly shows. The Mosaic law was ordained by God in the hands of angels. It had been the true religion for 4,000 years. It was very difficult for the Jewish believers (as it is with many today) to realize that the whole Mosaic system was typical and, therefore, transitory. Thus, the issue was not merely over circumcision, but over the whole legal system. Are Christians obliged to keep Moses law, or are they free from it? This was the question that divided the church in those early days.
Though the Apostles unanimously settled the question, it still divides the church of Christ. There are still those who insist upon bringing the free men in Christ under the bondage and servitude of Mosesí law. It is regrettable and dangerous to the souls of men that many who profess to believe and preach the free and sovereign grace of God, like the work-mongers of old, try to put Godís saints back under the terrifying, galling yoke of legal bondage. Let us beware lest we become entangled again with the law (Col. 2:8). There is no life in the law. Christ only has life. ďIn him is life,Ē and nowhere else. May our lips, our hearts, and our doctrine, never cease to declareÖ
Free from the law, O happy condition,
Jesus hath bled, And there is remission;
Cursed by the law, And bruised by the fall,
Grace hath redeemed us, once for all.
Now are we free, There is no condemnation,
Jesus provides a perfect salvation,
Come unto me, O hear His sweet call.
Come and He saves us, once for all.
††††† Paul went up to Jerusalem, not to get instruction or authority from the other Apostles, but to settle once for all this question of law verses liberty, to show to all the world that he and all the other Apostles were in agreement in this matter of free-grace, and that no place is to be given to the law as far as the Christian is concerned. Peter, James, John, and Paul all agreed upon the doctrine of the gospel. Their message was salvation by the righteousness of Christ, without anything done by man. Grace alone is the believerís motive in life. Christ alone is the Accomplisher of redemption, justification, and sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30; Heb. 10:10-14). Faith alone is the means by which we receive, embrace, and enjoy all the blessings of grace. In Galatians 2:1-10 the Holy Spirit gives us an inspired commentary, explaining what happened at the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15.
(vv. 1-2)† "Then fourteen years after I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, and took Titus with me also. And 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."
Paul went up to Jerusalem by the direct revelation of God. This was apparently Paulís third visit to Jerusalem, (He for some reason saw fit not to mention the second one recorded by Luke in Acts 1:30), which took place fourteen years after his first visit there. So this trip to Jerusalem took place seventeen years after Paulís conversion. He was now a seasoned, prudent, powerful, and confirmed Apostle.
††††† Why was it necessary for him to go to Jerusalem? It was not because he had questions concerning the doctrines he had taught. Neither was it needful for him to have his apostleship confirmed. Paul went to Jerusalem specifically to settle the division that the Judaizers had caused in the church over this matter of the law. He went there to show that he and the other Apostles taught the same doctrine.
††††† Barnabas, his co-laborer, was his travelling companion. His name means ďson of exhortation,Ē or† ďson of comfort.Ē It was given to him by the Apostles, probably as a description of the pre-eminent character of his ministry. He was a good man, full of the Holy Ghost and faith (Acts 11:24). Titus, another of Paulís co-laborers (one who had been converted under Paulís ministry), also made the trip with him. Titus was an uncircumcised, Gentile convert. Like Paul himself, both of these men were proven, faithful gospel preachers.
Paul was sent to Jerusalem by Godís direct revelation (v. 2). We should always seek the direction of Godís Spirit, by the Revelation he has given us in Holy Scripture, in all matters. This is especially true when dealing with spiritual, doctrinal, ecclesiastical matters. The Lord God directs us in his will and in his way by his Spirit, through his Word, by his providence, and through his church. Paul was sent to Jerusalem by divine revelation. Yet, he was sent by the church at Antioch (Acts 15:2-3).
(vv. 2-5)† "And 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. But neither Titus, who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised. And that because of false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage: To whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the gospel might continue with you."
††††† Paul carefully, frankly, and fully explained his doctrine to the chief apostles at Jerusalem, James, Peter, and John. First, he wisely and properly sought the Apostles and elders of the church. He sought those who were of reputation. What was their reputation? They were held in reputation by the brethren as faithful gospel preachers. Paul sought out these men, first because that is the proper thing to do in such matters, giving honor to those to whom honor is due. Anytime a man has a matter of controversy to lay before an assembly, he should discuss it with the pastor of that assembly.
††††† Then, he declared to them his gospel and the success of his labors in the cause of Christ. "And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them" (Acts 15:4). He declared his message and declared that the power of God had accompanied the gospel he preached to the conversion of chosen, redeemed sinners wherever the Lord had sent him (Rom. 1:16-17; 2 Cor. 2:15-17).
††††† After speaking privately to the other Apostles, elders, and preachers, Paul declared these things publicly to the Jerusalem church. He acted as he did in this matter so that his mission might not be in vain. If he had gone directly to the church, he might have caused greater division. Both his intention and his message may have been misunderstood.
††††† One great evidence of the fact that Paul and those who were in Christ before him were in full agreement is the fact the other apostles did not compel, or even suggest, that Titus be circumcised. Paul allowed Timothy, who was part Jew, to be circumcised later; but he did so not to cause offence, not because of doctrinal compulsion (Acts 16:3; 1 Cor. 10:28-31).
††††† Still, there was a sharp confrontation between these faithful men and some false brethren who had come in under false pretense to spy out the liberty of Godís saints, seeking an accusation against them (4-5). It was the presence of these men that caused Paul to make an issue of the fact that Titus was not circumcised and would not be circumcised (Acts 15:5; Jude 4). In matters of faith, for the gospelís sake, for the glory of Christ, and for the everlasting good of eternity bound sinners, faithful men must not give an inch. Henry Mahan recently wroteÖ
ďContending for the truth against the errors of modern religion is the duty of God's servants. I hope our spirit is one of genuine love to all the chosen of God; but today's rule of charity which requires us to keep silent on certain points in order to avoid controversy, I utterly despise. It is treason to the Lord Jesus to be silent on any point where He has spoken and the honor of His Gospel is concerned. It is easy on the flesh to deal in generalities, to denounce hyper-this or hyper-that, and to claim to be a friend to all; but it is required of the loyal servant of King Jesus to maintain His crown-rights and to stand up for His Gospel of Glory and Grace.Ē
(vv. 6-9)† "But of these who seemed to be somewhat, (whatsoever they were, it maketh no matter to me: God accepteth no man's person:) for they who seemed to be somewhat in conference added nothing to me: But contrariwise, when they saw that the gospel of the uncircumcision was committed unto me, as the gospel of the circumcision was unto Peter; (For he that wrought effectually in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, the same was mighty in me toward the Gentiles:) And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision."
††††† Paul and his brethren at Jerusalem (not the false brethren) believed the same gospel. He tells us in Ephesians that as there is but one God, so there is but one faith. All who have God given faith in Christ have the same faith. They are all united in the faith of the gospel. All true believers believe the same gospel, the gospel of Godís free and sovereign grace in Christ.
Verse 6 must not be read as a statement of sarcasm. It is a recognition of the esteem which these men had earned in the eyes of Godís church. Gospel preachers should always be held in high esteem of those among whom they labor (1 Thess. 5:12-13; Heb. 13:17). Our God is no respector of persons. He does not receive or use any man because of any natural qualities found in him. Rather, he saves sinners freely, without condition. And, commonly, those he is pleased to use in the work of the ministry are those who are least qualified for the work by nature (1 Cor. 1:26-29). Paul was, in every way, equal with these men by virtue of his calling, and he knew it. The same is true of all to whom the Lord God has entrusted the gospel of his grace. Godís servants are nothing but clay pots, in whom the Lord God has placed the great treasure of his gospel; and they all know it (2 Cor. 4:7).
The faithful men at Jerusalem gave Paul the same honor and recognition he gave them, embracing him as Godís messenger to the Gentiles. They saw that God had entrusted Paul with the gospel for the salvation of his elect among the Gentiles, just as he had entrusted Peter with it for the salvation of his elect among the Jews. Paul had a stewardship of the gospel committed to him to go to the Gentiles (2 Cor. 9:17; 1 Thess. 2:4; 1 Tim. 1:11-12; Eph. 3:8). Peter had a stewardship of the gospel committed to him to go to the Jews. The same gospel was committed to both; and both were faithful to it. Both were faithful and both were honored by God in their labors as the instruments by which the gospel was spread both among the Jews and the Gentiles. That which is essential for any service in the kingdom of God is trustworthiness (Mt. 25:21; 2 Cor. 4:2). It is by the mercy and grace of God that his servants are made trustworthy (1 Cor. 7:25; 2 Cor. 4:1), and continue so (Acts 26:22) unto the end (Acts 20:24, 2 Tim. 4:7).
††††† Paul and Barnabas were received into the fellowship of the Apostles as co-laborers in the gospel. Fellowship is a general term expressing the common experiences, interests, goals, and hopes of Godís saints. The basis of fellowship is the gospel of Christ (1 John 1:3-7). There is no fellowship where there is no gospel unity. The fact that the Apostles received Paul and Barnabas into their fellowship publicly put their stamp of approval upon them and declared to all the church that they were all co-laborers in the kingdom of God.
(v. 10)† "Only they would that we should remember the poor; the same which I also was forward to do."
††††† Peter, James, and John were delighted to embrace Paul. They expressed concern only about one thing. They said nothing about the Mosaic commandments, ceremonies, and rituals, because they knew that Godís saints are not under the law, but under grace. They only urged Paul and Barnabas to always remember and minister to the poor. That is a tremendous fact. Those servants of God had been involved in matters of great importanceóthe purity of the gospel! Nothing could be more important. But the purity of the gospel would be empty and meaningless were it preached by men who were without compassion. So Peter, James, and John urged Paul and Barnabas to remember the poor in all their labors. That they were eager to do. The exercise of love, compassion, sympathy, and tenderness toward those who are most likely to be the objects of abuse is always in season and always both the duty and the delight of poor sinners who have tasted Godís rich grace in Christ (Ex. 23:10-11, 30:15, Lev. 19:10, Deut. 15:7-11; Jer. 22:16, Dan. 4:27, Amos 2:6-7; Mt. 7:12; Lk. 6:36; John 13:29; 1 Cor. 16:1-2; 2 Cor. 8:9; Mt. 25:31-40). In the Word of God grace, righteousness, godliness, and good works are always associated with love, kindness, and mercy. This is the law by which the people of God are ruled and motivated (1 John 2:23).