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THE JERUSALEM CONFERENCE
Not until fourteen years later was there any consultation between Paul and the apostles generally. On this occasion (of which Acts 15:1-44.15.41 gives the history) Paul went with Barnabas, but also took Titus, a Greek, with him. He did this for the purpose of making Titus a test case, being determined that the Gentile Titus was not to be compelled to be circumcised, yet to be fully identified with the Jewish disciples of Christ. Here indeed is a firmness of purpose on the part of Paul which makes any consultation with men of no importance compared to the revelation of God. Why then the conference, if Paul was prepared not to give an inch toward the judaizing party that wanted to bring the Law into the assemblies? The answer is evident. Jerusalem was the place from which Christianity had sprung, and yet the place which, naturally speaking, was the most liable to cling tenaciously to the Law, for the Law had been established there long before Christianity. Moreover, certain men had come from Judea to Antioch, teaching the Gentile brethren that unless they kept the Law of Moses they could not be saved (Acts 15:1). Paul therefore, counting on God to distinctly settle the matter for all the disciples, went to Jerusalem and to those who were apostles before him, not to inquire if he was right, but rather to require a definite stand on the part of the other apostles.
More than this, Paul had gone up by revelation, not for his own satisfaction (v.2). There he communicated privately to those of reputation (the apostles) the gospel that he had long preached among the Gentiles. He didn't come to learn the gospel they preached, but presented his gospel to the others, as well as telling them of the fruit produced among the Gentiles in years now past. Not that his Gospel was contrary to theirs, but rather the same gospel developed in the fullest way, beyond what the Jerusalem apostles had understood. This was sufficient evidence to prove the distinctness of his apostleship as sent by God independently of their authority, and yet in perfect unity with what they taught.
It was boldness on Paul's part to act as he did, taking the matter directly to Jerusalem, and taking Titus with him under such circumstances, but it was by revelation he went. He would not ignore the testimony and ministry of the other apostles, recognizing them as sent by God, but he would be firm in maintaining the truth that God had committed to him. Lest some should think there was contradiction of one ministry in the others, or that Paul had been deficient through lack of instruction by those who were apostles before him, he would face the matter and require a stand, not simply on the part of the Gentiles, or at Antioch, but on the part of the very Jews by whom the resurrection of Christ had first been preached, and at Jerusalem, the stronghold of Judaism in former times.
The latter part of verse 2, "lest by any means I might run, or had run, in vain," does not indicate doubt on the apostle's part. But the other apostles must be called upon to face the question of whether Paul's ministry was of God, or had his labors of past years been in vain? There can be no halfway point here for Paul: there must be a definite declaration.
Verse 3 is a parenthesis, where Paul speaks of Titus, being a Greek, not being compelled to be circumcised. So that at that conference, Gentiles were demonstrably not to be put under the Law. This too should have been a lesson for the Galatians.
Verse 4 therefore connects with verse 2, showing why Paul went privately first to those of reputation at Jerusalem. This was because false brethren had been surreptitiously brought in, having the deceitful object of overthrowing the liberty proclaimed by the gospel of Christ in order to again bring Christians into bondage under the Law. It was no misunderstanding of principles that caused them to act thus. Their motives were willfully, deliberately evil -- a strong assertion indeed, but made by the inspiration of the Spirit of God.
Paul would not tolerate such men. He gave them no place whatever in the Christian conference. His clearness of spiritual perception considered even the allowance of the arguments of such men at a Christian conference to be in some measure at least an indication of subjection to them and their Christ dishonoring doctrines. He will not allow the suggestion that there can by any question about it: it would be weakness to honor them with any privilege of negotiation. The truth of the gospel was at stake, and here Paul takes occasion for pointed appeal to the Galatians, that his firm stand was taken for their sakes, "that the truth of the gospel might continue with you" (v.5). How earnest, how faithful, how tender was the apostle's heart! Two things deeply engrossed him: the honor of God in an opposing world and the true spiritual welfare of souls. He would fight with utmost energy on behalf of these.
UNITY AMONG THE APOSTLES
In verse 6 we no longer have a question of the judaizers, but of Paul's relationship with the other apostles. The language here is not belittling toward them, but is a frank, straightforward statement of truth. When he says, "whatever they were, it makes no difference to me" (v.6), he adds, "God shows personal favoritism to no man" and hence places himself on the same level, as far as personalities are concerned. The truth does not gain its character from the importance of its messengers. Let the Galatians think of men what they will, yet Paul assures them, "those who seemed to be something added nothing to me." It is an astounding statement! Could those men who had actually lived with the Lord on earth, give nothing to enlighten Paul? No, their knowledge was not greater than his. Indeed, the revelations given to Paul were of a higher character than the gospel the others had preached, for Paul's ministry is connected with Christ ascended, glorified, Head of the new creation and of the Assembly, Great High Priest, and the saints seen in their heavenly relationship to Him. It was God Himself who had chosen this willingly humbled instrument to present these New Testament truths of Christianity.
The other apostles, at this consultation, fully recognized the distinct work of the Spirit of God in Paul, discerning the special administration of the gospel towards the Gentiles committed to him, while Peter was specially gifted with a ministry to meet the need of Jews. Such a radical change from earthly Judaism to a prospect of heavenly glory, as Paul preached, was, as a general rule, too great a step for one brought up in the Jewish faith. Thus, earnest as he was in proclaiming the truth, Paul could make little impression in such places as Jerusalem. Peter's ministry was more calculated to gradually wean the Jewish believer from earthly hopes to those heavenly. Here is the bright shining of the wisdom of God, and at the same time the reminder of the littleness and impotence of the most able of His servants.
The Galatians had not been devotees of Judaism, so there was no excuse for their attempted mixture of principles. Once a believer has known the liberty of the gospel, it is a dreadfully serious backward step to attempt to mix liberty with the principles of law. We know all too well that at the present time the Gentiles, to whom God never gave the Law, have imported it into many systems that boast the name of Christianity. Awful indeed is such presumption, perhaps through blindness, but all too often through willful blindness.
While acknowledging the persons that God uses, naming them and giving them their distinct place, the Spirit of God ever impresses on us the truth evident in verse 8, that it is God's work, and He operates as and through whom He wills. As to authority, the person is altogether set aside; yet the message as distinctly given by God, carries an authority far higher and more compulsory than any number of people (even the most godly) could give it. Verse 8 then implies that every believer is bound to recognize the distinctness of the ministries of Peter and Paul and not to disparage either of them, but rather to submit to the truths God reveals by both. It is a principle of God's Word that God dispenses His gifts distinctly and with liberty as He will. We too easily allow a message to be affected by how favorably we view the personality of the messenger.
There is great beauty in verse 9. The ministry of Paul is unreservedly approved by James, Peter and John (recognized as pillars of Christianity) with no suggestion of envy and no thought of limiting, qualifying or adding to Paul's distinctive ministry. The other apostles recognize its marks of distinctness as the marks of God, and the result is a thorough, wholehearted fellowship expressed in no uncertain terms. Sweet indeed is this unity, which, in holy subjection under the hand of God, can be manifested in such diversity! But nothing of the flesh can enter here, or this would only cause confusion. How good to see that here is the liberty of the Spirit of God, active, not only in Paul's ministry, but in the attitude of the other apostles, a liberty which yet produces the utmost unity. The right hand of fellowship is given to Paul and Barnabas.
How blessed it is for us to contemplate this Christian unity which is in such contrast to our own day of ungodly decline, when the profession of the truth and lofty claim of being sent by God is so often accompanied by a spirit of pride and independency! All must be tested by the truth, though it may be a difficult thing to discern error in regard to all who preach, for Satan has today multiplied his mischievous devices. But we must cling to the fact that the foundation stands (2 Timothy 2:19). Nothing can destroy the beauty of the liberty and unity that was known among the apostles. There it remains recorded in the Word of God; and of the same is not manifested among the saints today, there is no excuse. We have dismally failed, but the truth has not.
"They desired only that we should remember the poor, the very thing that I also was eager to do" (v.10). How strikingly beautiful in such an epistle is this desire of James, Peter and John, for it is the effect of the grace of God known and enjoyed. This is another contrast to mere law-keeping, for the Law gave nothing: it only demanded. Paul fully identified with this lovely grace, which is one of the special marks of Christianity. God gave His own beloved Son, and the reality of our knowledge of Him is proven by our having the same attitude of mercy, grace and kindness toward others.
PAUL WITHSTANDS PETER
Verse 11 introduces another matter which Paul faces with admirable candor. He withstood Peter openly when Peter, at Antioch, fearing the attitude of Jews who had come down from Jerusalem, desisted from eating with Gentile believers. The words used here are striking and straightforward: "withdrew," "separated," "hypocrisy." How solemn a departure from "the unity of the Spirit!" Peter ate with believing Gentiles before the Jews came from James (in Jerusalem), but when they came, he withdrew from the Gentiles to avoid the disapproval of the Jews. Thus the unity that had been blessedly expressed in the consultation at Jerusalem, was in practice denied, merely because of Peter's fear of those Jews who clung to the pride of Jewish religious distinction. When Peter acted in such a way, other Jews also followed his hypocrisy. Even Barnabas, Paul's companion in labor among the Gentiles, was carried away by this hypocrisy. It was a strong current, a subtle snare, for Peter was held in reputation; and the greater one's reputation for godliness, the more harm he will do by example if he turns aside. There is certainly nothing for religious tradition to cling to here, in support of the claim of Peter's absolute authority in the early Church. He would be a poor rock indeed for the foundation of the Church of God. His name, Peter, only means "a stone," while "the Rock" is Christ (1 Corinthians 10:4). It will not do to give any person a place that belongs only to the Lord of glory.
Paul was not intimidated by Peter's person or action. To Paul the respecting of persons was vanity. Paul spoke very plainly in his reproof of Peter, for with God-given discernment he "saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel" (v.14). Paul therefore addressed Peter before all, "If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of the Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews? We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified" (vs.14-16). The forms of Judaism had been largely given up by the disciples, though not entirely. But there was a decided separation between them and the Jews who still clung to Judaism: the latter persecuted the former, who had, in fact, broken traditional barriers by associating and eating with Gentiles. Thus, by practice, the disciples acknowledged themselves on a Level with Gentiles: they lived as did the nations. Peter himself, freed from the bondage of the Law, had practiced the liberty of the gospel by living as the Gentiles.
Why then would Peter compel the Gentiles to conform to judaistic custom in order to be accorded full Christian fellowship? It was an entire reversal of behavior, the principle being that of leaving Christianity and returning to Judaism. Paul would have the line drawn with thorough distinctness. Let Judaism keep its place and give Christianity its own distinctive place.
"We," Paul says, "who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles" (v.15). He speaks of what might be an occasion for their boasting (he himself being a Jew), but they had been enlightened to know that no person is justified on the principle of works of law. This took the whole foundation from under the feet of those who made the Law their support. It is the thorough destruction of confidence in the flesh, reducing all people to a common level of spiritual impotence and nothingness. The principle for justification must only be the faith of Jesus Christ. Those Jews had believed in Jesus Christ in order to be justified by the faith of Christ, not by works of law.
But the Gentiles present had also believed in Jesus Christ. What was the difference then? None, unless old things, fleshly and vain, were revived. Had not these been done away in the cross? But if they did revive the old things, they were in effect confessing themselves to have sinned in ever turning from them. If a person sought to be justified by Christ, turning from the Law as a means of justification, and then again turned back to the Law, it would in effect be saying not only that he had sinned, but that Christ Himself was responsible for that sin. "Is Christ therefore a minister of sin?" Paul instantly repudiates the thought as abhorrent.
Peter and the other disciples had never thought of leaving Christ to return to Judaism, but that was nevertheless the principle they had acted on. Paul exposes the effect of such a principle if carried out to its ultimate end. We do well to use this method of testing every practice. It would reveal to us a solemn lack of consistency in many things.
"For if I build again those things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor" (v.18). If I was not a transgressor in destroying, then I am certainly a transgressor in rebuilding. If one was not a transgressor in giving up Judaism for Christ, then how can he ever dare to go back to Judaism again?
"For I through the law have died to the law, that I might live to God" (v.19). The Old Testament shows that the Law, because it was broken, invariably demanded death, though its promise was, "do this and you will live" (Luke 10:28). The Law protects a perfectly righteous person, but condemns the one who disobeys in the least degree. Hence, it condemns all except Him "who committed no sin" (1 Peter 2:22). The law demanded sacrifice, and said, "It is the blood that makes atonement for the soul" (Leviticus 17:11). Law is "the ministry of death," "the ministry of condemnation" (2 Corinthians 3:7; 2 Corinthians 3:9). The Law closes every mouth and brings all the world under judgment to God (Romans 3:21). There is no escaping its sentence: death must be executed: blood must be shed.
But the believer may rejoice that he is dead to the Law. Its sentence has been executed for him. He hasn't died physically, but Another has died in his place. Christ, his Lord and Savior, has fulfilled entirely the Law's demand of death. (Christ has also borne the sins of the believer, of course, but that is not the point here.) The law's demand against me was death. Christ has taken my place and borne that sentence; therefore the law reckons that I have died and it will never make a claim against a dead person. Thus, it is "through the law" - its utmost judgment having been carried out - that I am dead to the Law. The Law itself declares that it can have no more to say in my case: as far as it is concerned, I have died.
Still, I have died "that I might live" (v.19). The flesh, condemned by the law, and having been put to death at the death of Christ (Romans 6:6), is out of the question now. I can only abhor the flesh when I see the agony that Christ has borne for my sake on account of sin. But knowing that the Law now demands nothing from me, and I am delivered outside of its sphere altogether by One whose love led Him to death, I certainly do not live "unto law." I do not attempt to fulfill obligations I never can and which Christ has already fulfilled in His death. Rather, the place I am given is such "that I might live to God."
"Though crucified with Christ" (judicially of course), yet Paul knows he has life, but recognizes nothing of himself in it: "Christ lives in me" (v.20). This is the language of one who has learned his utter nothingness, being humbled to see there is no life, no source of goodness, except in Christ Himself. Christ is risen, and it is the power of this resurrection life that operates in the believer, causing the heart to well up in admiration of Him, ascribing every good thought, word and deed to Christ who lives in him. Blessed attitude of faith! The old life is set aside as worthless, not that it is eradicated, for practically speaking we have much occasion to be humbled by its sinful workings. But in God's sight it is done away with, and we are to reckon ourselves dead indeed to sin, but alive to God through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 6:11). This is a matter of faith, not of feeling or experience, though when recognized by faith there will surely be an experimental understanding of it to follow. It will be made a real thing to the soul.
How is it made real? Only by faith! "The life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me" (v.20). It is not simply a matter of being justified by faith (a grand truth also), but of living by faith. Christianity does not give its converts a creed or a set of rules by which to be regulated. Rather, it fixes the heart and eyes simply upon Christ. He is its Standard: there could be none higher, and a lower one (whether the Law, or whatever else) could never suit the heart of God. Sweet it is when a believer learns to act simply because of what Christ is and what He has done, out of a true desire to please Him. This is faith. The last clause too, "the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me." is uniquely touching, giving the incentive for the activity of faith, for it is the language both of faith and affection wrought personally in the soul. This is never the heart-language of a legal-minded person.
A legal attitude attempts to frustrate (or set aside) the grace of God. Paul will do no such thing, nor allow the principle of law to be mixed with the principle of grace, for "if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died in vain" (v.21). Law could never produce righteousness: grace alone has done this by virtue of the cross. If I dare to suggest any other means of healing my unrighteousness than through the cross of Christ, if I dare to think I can gain or maintain a righteous standing before God on the ground of law-keeping, I am saying in effect that it was useless for Christ to have died! Yet, this is exactly what many professed Christians are guilty of, although they don't realize it. If it is not Christ alone to whom one clings for safety, how dangerous is the ground!
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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Grant, L. M. "Commentary on Galatians 2". Grant's Commentary on the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week of Advent