Psychologists often talk about the ‘change curve’. It’s a series of emotions we encounter when change comes upon us. It can involve surprise, denial, anger and eventually (hopefully) acceptance. At the time Paul penned his letter to the Galatians, God’s dealings with mankind were changing
quite dramatically and it seems that this letter is at least part of the story of how the change took root in spite of some who found it intensely difficult to accept.
- Paul’s visit to Jerusalem
We noted in chapter 1 that Paul had rather infrequent connections with the apostles in Jerusalem and it seemed that this may at least in part have been deliberate as he received the new revelation from God and as he personally assimilated it and ‘got his head around it.’ This trend continued and we note that it was not until 14 years had passed that he took time to visit the apostles in Jerusalem. It’s not all that easy to pick one’s way through all of this but it seems to me that the message of the senior disciple, Peter emphasised the need for Jews to repent of their rejection of the Messiah, and in Acts he indicated that a national repentance would elicit the return of the king. Sometime later as recorded in Acts 10, he was lead by the Holy Spirit to visit the home of a Gentile, Cornelius, to whom he gave a similar message but added ‘everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’ It was a message that could be accepted by a Gentile as well as a Jew. Peter had seen, through personal experience that God was interested in communicating with Gentiles. On his return to Jerusalem however, he continued to focus his attention on Jews. I suspect at this point that Peter was beginning to wonder how things would work out: if Jesus was to come in response to a national Jewish repentance accompanied by an acceptance that Jesus was the Messiah, what would happen if they rejected that message? Some non-Jews were accepting the message about Jesus but there was a distinct lack of clarity as to where to go from there, did these Gentiles need to become ‘Jewish’ and follow Jewish customs and practice in their relationship with God? The answers to these questions seemed to be given to Paul and Paul was only having intermittent contact with Peter and the other apostles. I suspect that this period was rather difficult for Peter as he battled with the ‘change curve’ much of the time not really knowing what the full extent of the change was. It seems that amidst this uncertainty some Jews emerged who sought to bring some clarity: they wanted to impose circumcision on all new believers irrespective of national or ethnic origin. This was a major challenge to the new way Paul was adopting under God’s specific revelation to him: it was time for Paul to act decisively and with clarity. This important letter sets out the correction that was needed with respect to Jews who wished to impose Jewish traditions on Gentiles, but it also sets out the new way to live for both Jews and Gentiles.
So Paul returns to Jerusalem with his co-workers Barnabas and Titus. This visit was prompted by a ‘revelation.’ It seems that God was at work in this situation, Paul’s visit was under specific guidance from God and this at least tells us that the matters in hand were of great importance. Incidentally it’s tempting for us to read into this that we too ought to expect such ‘revelations.’ Some Christians talk about such things as everyday occurrences, but we must remember that in this situation in Galatians we are dealing with a quite specific set of circumstances of great importance. We should therefore take care not to take the extraordinary and apply it to the ordinary. In any event the delegation arriving in Jerusalem decided to meet privately with those ‘esteemed as leaders’ and at that meeting Paul ‘presented to them the gospel that he preach among the Gentiles.’ It was a time for education and explanation. This was a closed meeting between Paul, Barnabas and Titus and the leaders in Jerusalem. This makes a certain amount of sense. Tensions were high, there were some hot heads around and it was important to establish understanding and trust. My Japanese colleagues at work often talk of the need for ‘nemawashi’ which literally means ‘going around the roots.’ The idea is that if you want to make a big change you need to ‘go around the roots’ to prepare the tree for transplant. Similarly to make a big change you need to do ‘nemawashi’ by consulting and explaining to individuals before the change comes about. Paul, it seems, was doing his nemawashi. There was a second quite practical reason for the closed meeting – some of those involved were behaving in an underhand way: doing all they could to oppose Paul. They were not interested in change or truth, but were intent rather on preserving their own position come what may. Paul says ‘some false believers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves.’ The meeting had two objectives for Paul: first to preserve the truth of the gospel he had been given and second to preserve his personal investment in the gospel – he didn’t want his hard work to be in vain.
There is a very clear issue that Paul deals with in these discussions and it related to the imposition of Jewish customs and practices on Gentiles: male circumcision was at the top of that list. I suspect also that Paul had other features of the gospel that he needed to share with Peter and the other Jewish leaders. Not only was the gospel for Gentiles, and not only was there a need to stop imposing circumcision on Gentiles but it seems there was a need for Paul to explain just what ‘his gospel’ actually was.
- The meeting
Paul went into this meeting with respect for the disciples or ‘those who were held in high esteem’ (as he describes them), but he was not going to allow their rank to intimidate him or deflect him from his important task – the truth in this case was just too important. He said: ‘whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favouritism.’ I don’t think Paul was being big headed when he said ‘they added nothing to my message.’ It was clear however that Paul was adding something to theirs!
I have to confess that I have somewhat struggled to understand if Peter’s and Paul’s gospels were different or not. I think the answer is that both taught that there was a need to believe in the Lord Jesus for the forgiveness of sin: an underlying gospel that was common to both. But Peter’s gospel to the Jews rightly had Jewish elements to it, such as the need for national repentance (following their execution of the Messiah) and the consequence of national repentance in respect of the Old Testament Messianic prophecies: if the Jews repented they would be ready to receive their Messiah. Paul on the other hand also preached that forgiveness of sin was to be found by belief in the Lord Jesus but his gospel was going to go on to develop the idea of the church and its different destiny to that of Israel: there was to be an expansion of the work amongst Gentiles and at the same time the Jews as a nation were to be set aside (see Romans 9-11 for more on this). The current specific issue however was the imposition of Jewish customs on Gentiles (specifically circumcision). Paul entered the meeting with a test case: Titus. He had not been circumcised and yet he was a believer.
The outcome of the meeting was good. Paul was listened to and there was both a recognition and acceptance that Paul had a ministry to Gentiles and that Peter had a ministry to Jews: ‘For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles (verse 8).’ Paul played some smart politics here, he not only forged this clear agreement, he also obtained endorsement for it from the influential apostles: verse 9 ‘James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognised the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised.’ It seems that the faction keen on imposing Jewish customs on Gentiles (rightly) respected these ‘pillars’ and now that Paul had their endorsement he had outmanoeuvred them. Incidentally we will see later in this chapter that the Jewish faction had undermined Peter’s authority and had forced him into a demeaning compromise.
There was one condition imposed on the agreement by Peter, James and John: that Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles should include a continuation ‘to remember the poor.’ Something that Paul was more than happy to (continue) to do. We recently heard a story of a young Muslim man who had through a series of difficult family circumstances found himself homeless and without money, he and his wife had been disowned by his family and community. He approached the mosques for help but none was forthcoming, in desperation he found himself requesting help from the Salvation Army. The help he received astonished him because it was given unconditionally – ‘they didn’t even ask my religion,’ he later reported. What a wonderful Christian tradition – and one we ought to be keen to maintain even in our affluent British society.
- Peter visits Antioch
All had gone well in Jerusalem, it seemed that the matter had been resolved and everyone was in agreement. If only things were as simple as that! Paul had visited Jerusalem: Peter’s base. Now Peter was to visit Paul’s base: Antioch. I suspect that this meeting in Antioch happened after the Jerusalem meeting – and it had a very different outcome!
Peter had arrived in Antioch and had no problem fully integrating with the Gentile Christians there – he ate with them, sat with them had fellowship with them: he had no issues at all with them. But others arrived from Jerusalem as representatives of James. On their arrival Peter felt compelled to draw back from the Gentiles, he no longer ate with them and was clearly under pressure from the Jewish visitors to disassociate himself from the Gentiles. Even Barnabas followed Peter’s example. Paul was having none of this! There would be no closed cosy meeting this time! Paul stood up in front of everyone present and addressed Peter: ‘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?’ Gulp! How embarrassing is that! The Scots have an expression for this ‘black affronted’: public humiliation.
Paul hadn’t finished, he went on to explain the importance of the new way: ‘We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.’ Can you imagine the scene? Peter is red-faced, there is that awkward deafening silence as Paul speaks and he starts by stating what everyone in the room (Jew and Gentile alike) could agree with – the law doesn’t save but faith in Jesus Christ does. Paul goes on to say that if this is true then the Jews present had to agree that ‘by the works of the law no one will be justified (verse 16).’ The argument is clear: Jews and Gentiles are justified by the same means: faith in Jesus Christ – not the law. So far so good: now comes the sucker punch. If both Jews and Gentiles are justified by this means and we Jews retain the view that Gentiles are still the sinners (and not to be associated with) then we are effectively saying that Christ promotes sin! Paul is pointing out the absurdity of Peter’s actions in withdrawing from ‘sinful’ Gentiles.
Having pointed this out (the law can’t save but faith in Christ can and it’s open to both Jews and Gentiles), Paul then states the new basis for living and it’s not the law! ‘For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God.’ In Romans 7 Paul describes how we are effectively married to the law, and divorce is not possible. If the law would only die we could be released from marriage to it – but the law remains in vigorous health. What is the solution? If the law will not die – we may die! And in so doing we are released from the law to live under new circumstances: ‘For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (verses 19-20).’ Paul will expand on this in the latter part of Galatians but in these statements he sets out the guts of the letter – the law is dead, we don’t live by the law any more we now live for Christ. It’s no longer about obeying rules, it’s about loving a person: the law no longer applies.
Occasionally I’m in the house on my own whilst my wife is at work. I sometimes have a list of things to do: empty washing machine and hang up the washing (v important!), vacuum the kitchen, feed the cat, listen out for the delivery man etc. What’s interesting is that my motivation for completing my duties is not to obey the law of the list, but it’s motivated by my love for (and respect of) my wife – and perhaps a sprinkling of fear if I forget something of importance! So it should be for us to, we are to live lives that are right, not in obedience to the law, but for a person ‘who loved me and gave himself for me (verse 20).’