The difficulty in interpreting our passage in Galatians 2:1-10 lies on where to fit this narrative in Luke’s account in the book of Acts. Most scholars believe that it corresponds to the events described in Acts 15. There are many similarities between the narrative described in Acts 15 and that of Galatians 2 but there are also significant differences. Still there are others who think Paul is referring to a more private meeting prior to the Jerusalem council. Regardless of your view on the matter, the main point has to do more on the essence of what happened in this visitation than the issue of when precisely did it occurred.
Another thing to take note of when it comes to its interpretive difficulty is the fact that according to Douglas Moo; “It features some of the most convoluted language that is to be found in Paul’s letters. The passage is filled with parentheses, sentence fragments, and ellipses.”
We must remember that the reason why there are syntactical and logical difficulties in it is that Paul here is walking so to speak on a tightrope. On the one hand he wants to maintain his independence from the Jerusalem leaders but on the other hand he recognizes the importance of asserting his unity with the rest of the apostles. Therefore a careful reading and a special attention to the author’s flow of thought is necessary.
Paul was addressing the issues in the churches at Galatia that has to do with some professing believers, who claimed to represent the apostles at Jerusalem. They questioned Paul’s apostolic authority by saying that his gospel came only from men and that he modified the gospel to please the Gentiles. Not only that, they’re also preaching another gospel that requires believers to be circumcised first before they can be saved(Galatians 1:6-9). Galatians 1-2 deals with Paul’s authority and Galatians 3-4 deals with the defense of the Gospel, then Galatians 5-6 talks about how to live under this gospel. We already saw five of his arguments to rebut the false brothers’ accusations. First, his Argument from the origin of his message in Galatians 1:11-12. Second, his Argument from his Zeal for Judaism in Galatians 1:13-14. Third his Argument from Calling in Galatians 1:15-17. Then fourth, his Argument from Concession that he got acquainted with Peter in Galatians 1:18-20. Fifth, his Argument from the Testimony of Others in Galatians 1:21-24.
Galatians 2:1-14 is a two part argument to support Paul’s claim that he’s a God pleaser, a slave of Christ(Galatians 1:10) and therefore an authoritative apostle(Galatians 1:1) independent from the rest of the leaders at Jerusalem. Paul was arguing on the grounds that he rebuked one of the pillars. Paul concedes in Verses 1-10 that the pillars did in fact confirmed his apostleship, nevertheless in verses 11-14 he rebuked one of them, namely Peter. I will only discuss the first part of the argument, that is, that he was confirmed by the Pillars.
So Paul begins by saying that he went for a second time to Jerusalem after a span of fourteen years(verse 1). That’s very important because remember that the accusation of the false teachers in Galatia against Paul was that he’s just a second hander and that he just received his gospel from the apostles in Jerusalem that now he distorts. By underlining the fact that he has no contact with the Jerusalem leaders for fourteen years, he makes it plain that his message did not come from Peter, James nor John. But Paul wants to make clear also that he doesn’t distort the gospel of the apostles but that they are of one accord. So Paul went to make the record straight.
Paul went to Jerusalem because of a revelation and he went in order to present and therefore defend the Gospel. This visit was not planned by man but by God. He did not went there doubting his message, instead everything Paul did since his conversion was God revealed and God appointed. He’s been consistent since day one. Not only his message was of divine origin but also his appointments were of divine origin. It would’ve been better for Paul not to return but God wanted him to go to Jerusalem.
So Paul went in order to be united with the rest of the apostles because they would be running in vain(verse 2) if it can’t be shown that there is only one gospel. Plurality of gospel is incompatible with the building of the church. No church, no Christianity. Therefore Paul wanted to make sure that they’re on the same page and with one gospel lest they run in vain.
We can see two things in Paul’s presentation of his gospel. This presentation is not the same with public proclamation but it is a presentation in order to subject his gospel for scrutiny in private.
A. Paul’s Humility(verse 2)
First was Paul’s humility. He doesn’t have to undergo this process but he nevertheless willingly submit to the authority of the Jerusalem leaders. Though he’s in equal footing with the rest of the apostles when it comes to authority, he humbled himself and let the leaders examine his message.
Now compare Paul’s attitude with ours today. Many would claim to be an apostle or to be someone with authority in the church but they don’t want to let others examine their lives with the lens of apostolic writings in the scriptures. But the same error occurs when people will not let themselves be subjected under the leadership of a local church. Paul recognized the importance of the communal nature of the body of Christ and the gospel.
B. Absence of Rebuke by the leaders(verse 3)
Now remember that in this meeting, Paul mentioned that he brought Titus with him(verse 1) in order to make a case that even though Paul presented the gospel, while Titus was in attendance, the leaders did not find it necessary to circumcise him though he was a greek. Hence the absence of rebuke from the leaders. This is a strong case for Paul’s gospel of grace. If there was a perfect time to rebuke Paul for teaching a false gospel(as the false brothers accused him of doing), it should’ve been the right time.
Now in verse 4-10, Paul gave us his explanation as to why did the matter of circumcision and presentation of the Gospel arose in the first place in that meeting.
A. To confront the false brothers(verse 4-5)
First is to confront head on the false brothers who distort the gospel by their adding of works of the law in it. In this case it has to do with circumcision. These people mistakenly think that they represent the position of the Jerusalem leaders. We are told that these false brothers slipped in. We are not told however when did they slipped in. Is it during the private presentation of the gospel with the Jerusalem leaders or Paul was just giving a general statement that there are false teachers who slipped in the community of believers? Both can work in the context.
Now notice two purposes here. The false brothers ultimate intent was not just to spy out but to bring the believers to slavery, while Paul’s motive was to preserve the truth of the gospel. There’s an implied contrast between the two. Instead of making an exact parallelism between the false teachers’ intent to enslave, by saying that his purpose was to liberate, he said that his aim was to preserve the truth. Which is by implication he’s saying that truth can set us free. Falsehood enslaves, therefore any other so called gospels can’t give us liberty. A gospel that adds works of the law for justification will lead you to slavery under the law. A gospel that adds health, wealth and prosperity will not liberate you from your desire to be healthy, wealthy, and prosperous. A gospel that minimize the need for repentance and perseverance will lead you to be enslaved even more by sin.
Did not yield in submission
Paul’s response along with the other disciples demonstrate for us that we are not to give any opportunity for such falsehood to enter the church. They did not yield in submission even for a moment to the false brothers’ false gospel. What a vigilance! That’s how important the truth of the gospel is to Paul and that’s the kind of vigilance we all must have today.
B. To show that the Pillars did not amend his gospel(verse 6)
Second, he presented the gospel in front of the Jerusalem leaders to show that after hearing his message, they did not add anything to it. Not only that, he even pointed out that who these influential people were makes no difference to him because God shows no partiality. In other words, Paul not only received nothing from them(referring to the pillars’ teachings) but also he shows that he’s not a respecter of men.
C. To show that the Pillars and Paul have the same gospel(verse 7-10)
Lastly, Paul presented the gospel to be scrutinized in order to show that there’s only one gospel. Even though Paul’s apostolic authority is independent from the other apostles, his message was one with them. Their message share the same purpose but with different audience, same source, and same concern for the societal effects of the gospel, namely the concern for the poor.
i. Same Purpose but with Different Audience(verse 7 and verse 9)
Paul’s aim and the Jerusalem Leaders’ aim were the same. It is to preach the true gospel of grace. The only difference is that of their audience. Here we can see that the oneness of the gospel is crucial for its universality and exclusivity. Imagine for a moment that there are different gospels for the Jews and the Gentiles. Then it would undermine Christ’s exclusive claim as the only way for salvation. Paul’s gospel then will no longer be universal but tribal. No! There’s only one gospel for all. Both to the Jews and to the Gentiles.
ii. Same Source(verses 8-9)
The One who worked through Peter’s apostolic ministry worked also in Paul’s apostolic ministry. All true apostolic and prophetic utterance came from God. 2 Peter 1:20-21 said “Above all, you do well if you recognize this: No prophecy of scripture ever comes about by the prophet’s own imagination, for no prophecy was ever borne of human impulse; rather, men carried along by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”
iii. Same Concern for the Poor(verse 10)
We can see two things in their common concern for the poor.
1) Agreement on the importance
We can see that in mentioning this concern by Paul and the other apostles, they are in complete agreement as to the importance of the ministry of compassion for the poor. They even raised it side by side with the issue of the gospel. So who are we to ignore the importance of ministering to the poor?
2) Paul’s eagerness
Paul did not begrudgingly agreed to remember the poor but was eager to do it. He was not taken a back by this requirement. He heartily agreed to help the poor.
What’s the point of including this little admonition here?
One might say; isn’t that an addition to the gospel? Preach your gospel to the Gentiles Paul but be sure to remember the poor. Is that what’s being said here?
No! It’s not an addition to the gospel but an outworking of the gospel. Now in Luke 19:8-9, remember what Jesus said after Zacchaeus sold half of his possession for the poor. Jesus said “Today salvation has come to this house because he also is a son of Abraham.” The evidence that the gospel has come in a house is the outworking of the gospel in providing for the poor. Where the gospel goes, there goes the compassion for the poor. If you say to me that you are a Christian and have no compassion for the poor, then I have every reason to doubt your profession.
What are the implications then of this momentous event in the history of Christianity for our lives today?
1) We can trust the God who is the source of the one gospel, who works through different people to preserve that one gospel, who ordained that this same gospel will be preached to all creatures including the gentiles.
Imagine for a moment if Peter said that circumcision is a requirement for us to be counted as righteous in the sight of God, then we would not have the church as we know it today. Christ then failed to fulfill his promise that the gates of hell will not prevail against it. But God is sovereign, powerful and able to fulfill all his purposes through human means like the apostles Paul, Peter and John.
2) We, like Paul, will face situations where we would walk on a tightrope by which both our faithfulness to the truth of the gospel and our wisdom to discern when to become anything for all people will be tried. We should learn to confront disagreements, controversies and issues head on in and outside of our local churches with love and discernment.
3) As we obey the greatest commission to preach the gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ’s work alone, we must also obey Christ’s command to care for the poor, the children, the widows, and the oppressed. According to James, the religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world(James 1:27). And that we do these things joyfully and eagerly like Paul.
4) This issue on whether there are two gospels is only an issue to you when you already have the right gospel. That is if you’ve already experienced the life transforming grace of God in the gospel. Don’t be a spectator! Don’t say that this controversy has little to do with me and more to do with theologians. Instead ask yourself, am I trying to gain salvation by works of the law or am I relying on God’s mercy and grace and Christ’s perfect obedience alone for my acceptance in heaven?