I wish I could begin this blog with a story of how my mother preserved some summer crops for winter eating. But, alas, no basement shelves of fruit-stuff jars. Just paper bags from Safeway. However, here’s a gospel-preserves story from the apostle Paul that’s true. And we might wonder where we’d be without it.
This text isn’t an edge-of-your-chair nail-biter, although one commentator introduces this section: “Things get really interesting with this passage. From it we can derive much about ecclesiastical politics in relation to the defense of the gospel” (Commentary on Galatians, Vincent Cheung). Hmmm. Nothing like “ecclesiastical politics” to get the juices flowing.
Anyway, here’s the story summary. Paul’s new converts in Galatia are being led astray by Jews who insist circumcision and Moses’ law must be added to faith in Christ. Apparently they charged that Paul’s justification by faith came from the Jerusalem apostles. In Galatians 1:18-24 Paul argued that he visited Peter and James in Jerusalem for only 15 days three years after his Damascus road Christ-revelation.
Now 14 years later he, with Barnabas and Titus, visit Jerusalem again “in response to a revelation.” Opinions differ on what that revelation was and how this visit fits with the Acts narrative. Neither matters much. Here’s the text . . .
Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. I went in response to a revelation and set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain. Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek. This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you. As for those who seemed to be important– whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not judge by external appearance– those men added nothing to my message. On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews. For God, who was at work in the ministry of Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was also at work in my ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles. James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do. When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?” (Galatians 2:1-14).
- Paul privately told the Jerusalem church leaders the gospel he preached “for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain.” It seems to me, though again opinions differ, that Paul wanted to be sure the Jerusalem apostles and he were preaching the same gospel and not working at cross-purposes with one another.
- The Jerusalem apostles didn’t force gentile Titus, who had come with Paul, to be circumcised. Thus they showed agreement on justification by faith, not faith plus Jewish circumcision, which the “false brothers” demanded.
- The Jerusalem leaders added nothing to Paul’s gospel, instead extending “the right hand of fellowship” to Barnabas and Paul, having “recognized the grace given to [Paul].”
Now, finally, comes a little drama. The scene shifts to the Antioch, Syria church. Peter is visiting. At meals, he eats with Gentiles. (Not allowed by Jewish law. But, since Christ has “cleansed”these Gentiles by faith, Peter knows he’s free to eat with these new brothers. Soon “certain men came from James” (the leader of the Jewish Christian Jerusalem church). And Peter now eats only with Jewish Christians. His actions move Barnabas to do the same. Paul calls it hypocrisy and argues “they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel.” So in front of everybody, Paul confronts Peter: “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. (by eating with Gentiles before). How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs” (by now staying away from Gentile believers)?
Before this Antioch affair, Paul explained that “his” gospel (justification by faith, no circumcision or Jewish law) and that of the Jerusalem apostles was one. The “circumcision party” could have said, “Aha! Paul is just mouthing Jerusalem’s ‘gospel’! But when Paul publicly rebukes a Jerusalem apostle, they have to admit Paul is no Peter-puppet.
After all that excitement, time to ask what all this means to us. Back to the highlighted clause above: “so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you.” That’s what this is all about. Paul being sure that he and the Jerusalem apostles are on the same gospel-page. Paul bringing the uncircumcised Gentile believer Titus with him. Paul refusing to cave to the “circumcision party” at the meeting. Paul publicly opposing Peter to his face over his hypocrisy. It was all about saving the truth of the gospel of justification by faith alone from corruption.
No big deal? Just imagine where we’d be without Paul’s gospel-preserving purpose. We’d put our faith in Jesus. Have to be circumcised. And take on the yoke of Old Testament law. All the sacrifices, all the commandments, all the laws. All added to our faith in Christ. We’d be weighted down with demands we couldn’t keep and would never be right with God.
So my mother never preserved peaches. And this text would be rough to read for devotions early in the morning. (Yawn!) But without Paul’s faithfulness (stubbornness?) to the gospel of justification by faith alone in Christ alone, we’d be lost.