Then after fourteen years I went up to Jerusalem again with Barnabas, taking Titus along too. I went there because of a revelation and presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did so only in a private meeting with the influential people,to make sure that I was not running – or had not run– in vain. – Paul (Gal 2:1-2; NET)
Did Paul doubt his gospel message? And why, with the Galatians doubting his gospel, would Paul also express doubt in it?
In the last post we examined Paul’s presentation of his gospel to the Apostles. Based on the evidence in the letter it is highly unlikely that Paul is expressing doubt in his gospel nor is he looking to the Apostles for verification of the message he proclaimed. Paul has spent the last 14 years ministering with the gospel he received from Jesus. So why did Paul present his gospel to the Apostles in Jerusalem? In what way did Paul think he might be “running in vain”?
Endorsing Paul’s role to the Gentiles
In the section that follows (Gal 2:1-2) Paul discusses the private meeting he had with the Apostles. In it he repeatedly states that he was given the mission to carry the gospel to the Gentiles and that Peter (and the Apostles) were given the mission to carry the gospel to the Jews.
- I was entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised just as Peter was to the circumcised (2:7)
- [God] empowered Peter … to the circumcised also empowered me for my apostleship to the Gentiles (2:8)
- [Apostles agree] that [Barnabas and Paul] would go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised (2:9)
Paul is emphasizing that both he and the Apostles have been given the task of ministering to separate people groups. Paul also makes it clear that these areas of ministry were entrusted to them by God. Furthermore there is an emphasis on the agreement between Peter, Paul, and the rest of the Apostles regarding both of these points. From these observations an argument could be made that Paul wanted the Apostles to endorse his role as a messenger to the Gentiles.
Although Paul has been ministering for 14 years at the point he visited Jerusalem, the majority of those years had been spent in Tarsus (Acts 9:30; 11:25-26). After joining Barnabas and spending a year in Antioch, Paul has proven that he is a faithful minister of the gospel and a true follower of Jesus Christ. However outside of Antioch he was still known best as the former persecutor of the church and is relatively unknown to the Apostles when he arrives in Jerusalem (Acts 9:21; Gal 1:22-23).
Paul knew that as a former enemy of the church it would be difficult to be accepted as its advocate and as the primary messenger to the Gentiles. However the men who led the church in Jerusalem were highly influential. And why wouldn’t they be? After all these men were Apostles, they had walked with Jesus, and were the first to be filled with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Paul, likely laid before these men his role in bringing the gospel to the Gentiles.
The pillars of the church had authority and carried influence in the early church. If opponents, like the ones in Galatians, could argue that Paul had taken on his role without the support of the Apostles it could undermine his authority and effectiveness. We know from Acts and the other epistles that Paul’s role was regularly challenged by those introducing contradictory teachings in the churches. It was not that Paul needed the Apostles’ endorsement – a point he makes in the opening of the letter (Gal 1:1) – since God had appointed him but it certainly could help him more easily establish his role as minister to the Gentiles and refute his opponents.
Working out how Gentiles (and Jews) were to live under the New Covenant
Paul clearly demonstrates that this gospel he proclaims to the Gentiles was accepted by the Apostles in the sections that follow (Gal 2:1-2):
- we did not yield to the false brothers and circumcise Titus (2:1-5) because we wanted to preserve the gospel. Had we allowed Titus to be circumcised to preserve unity then others might mistakenly think that this was required as part of the gospel. But it is not (Gal 6:15).
- the Apostles endorsed my mission to take the gospel to the Gentiles without adding anything to it (2:6-9). They could have corrected me regarding the need to follow the Law after accepting justification by faith but they did not.
- the Jews were living like Gentiles, but when they live like Jews (as Peter did in Antioch) it causes people to live in a way that distorts the gospel (2:11-14).
The trip described in Galatians 2:1-2 lines up well with the visit recorded in Acts 11:27-30. If this is correct then prior to the visit by Paul, the church at Jerusalem was coming to grips with the reality that the Gentiles were no longer strangers to the covenants of promise (Acts 10:45; 11:1,18). But this was a relatively new development. For approximately 14 years Peter, and the other Jewish believers, lived under the New Covenant (post Pentecost) as Jews. When Peter received a vision from the Lord regarding food and is told to visit Cornelius (see Acts 10) he is appalled at these ideas:
- Certainly not, Lord, for I have never eaten anything defiled and ritually unclean! (Acts 10:14)
- You know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile… (Acts 10:28)
In Antioch, outreach efforts were initially limited to the Jewish people (Acts 11:19). That is the mindset that Peter and the Jewish believers had at the time. The commands in the Mosaic Law were kept – not as a means to justification, which Paul says they all knew was not possible (Gal 2:16) – but as the way God intended His followers to live. Therefore it was likely that any Gentiles coming to Christ at this time were being instructed to live as Jews “under the law”.
It was not until Peter saw the Holy Spirit poured out upon the Gentiles that he began to understand that the old way of living was fading away (Acts 10:45). It took time for people to accept this. When Peter returned to Jerusalem to report on what had happened, we see that Jewish believers had a hard time with this because they were still living as if they were under the law.
the circumcised believers took issue with him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and shared a meal with them.” (Acts 11:2-3)
Notice that the believers are 1) circumcised, 2) did not want to associate with Gentiles, and 3) took issue with not following the food laws. Eventually these believers accepted Peter’s report and the idea that Gentiles were now included in the new covenant. But this was an unsettling time. Theological systems were being radically altered. And not all in Jerusalem agreed. And because believers were living like Jews, the issue began to blur theological distinctions. The problem which started with the question should a believer follow the Mosaic Law became a debate about whether a person was saved through the Mosaic Law (Acts 15:1-4).
Paul’s gospel in a nutshell was that a person is justified by faith and does not need to live like a Jew.
As the Antioch church began to reach out to Gentiles, Barnabas recruited Paul to help with that effort (Acts 11:20,25). Paul’s message focused on justification by faith (Gal 2:16; Acts 13:39). But Paul’s gospel went beyond “how to get saved” and also taught people that as a result of being justified by faith (and not by works), they did not need to follow the Mosaic Law any longer. This did not make Paul very popular. In fact his early gospel ministry involved two attempts on his life (Acts 9:23,29). Even if Paul and the Apostles were both teaching that justification was by faith, Paul knew that his effectiveness in reaching Gentiles would be impacted if the Apostles were still living ‘like Jews’ and teaching believing Gentiles to live ‘like Jews’ as a means of showing their love to Christ. He knew that in order to be effective (as opposed to ineffective or ‘in vain’) he would need to make sure that they all agreed not only on the relationship of the law to justification, but also to how one ought to live as a Christian. The Apostles, being Jews needed to start consistently living like Gentiles so that the gospel would be clearly preserved and understood (Gal 2:5,14).
Did Paul doubt his gospel message? I doubt it!