1 Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. 2 I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain. 3 But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. 4 Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery— 5 to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you. 6 And from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me. 7 On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised 8 (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles), 9 and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. 10 Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do. – Galatians 2:1-10 ESV
As Paul continues his defense of his apostolic ministry and message, he relates how he actively ministered the gospel among the Gentiles for 14 years before making his way to Jerusalem – the primary hub of the rapidly expanding Christian movement. Paul records that he and Barnabas made the trip together. According to Luke’s account in the book of Acts, Paul had been helping Barnabas minister to the Gentiles in Antioch. Luke provides important insights into what transpired in the early days of the gospel’s growth in Jerusalem. After the stoning of Stephen in Jerusalem, many of the new followers of Christ fled for their safety out of fear for their own lives.
And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. – Luke 8:1 ESV
Paul, up until his conversion, had played a major role in that persecution, and Luke goes on to say that it resulted in believers moving even further away from Judea.
Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. – Acts 11:19-24 ESV
The gospel’s expansion into the region of Phoenicia, the city of Antioch, and the island of Cyprus forced the leadership in Jerusalem to develop a plan for overseeing their rapidly expanding network of fledgling congregations. This organic growth was fueled by those whose lives had been transformed upon hearing the gospel on the Day of Pentecost. Jews from all over the known world had traveled to Jerusalem for this annual feast. In the Book of Acts, Luke records that these ethnic Jews and proselytes to Judaism heard the good news of the gospel being proclaimed in their own languages from a small group of uneducated Galilean men.
…at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” – Acts 2:6-11 NLT
Peter took advantage of this captive audience and preached a powerful message that resulted in more than 3,000 individuals coming to faith in Christ. In time, most of these new believers were forced to return to their native countries. Some attempted to remain in Jerusalem out of a desire to remain under the teaching of the apostles but eventually, they made their way home, taking the gospel with them.
These unofficial missionaries were effective in sharing the news that had transformed their own lives. When news reached Jerusalem that the gospel had taken root in these far-flung regions they sent Barnabas to investigate. What he found was both encouraging and concerning. He knew that these new converts to Christianity were going to need assistance and oversight. Their knowledge of the gospel was rudimentary at best and they had received no exposure to the teachings of Jesus.
Barnabas, familiar with Paul’s ministry to Gentiles, decided to recruit him for the ministry needs in Antioch. Barabas traveled all the way to Tarsus to find Paul and for the next year, they would minister to the new congregations in Antioch.
Both of them stayed there with the church for a full year, teaching large crowds of people. (It was at Antioch that the believers were first called Christians.) – Acts 11:26 NLT
Eventually, Paul and Barnabas returned to Jerusalem to provide the apostles with a report of their activities in Antioch. More than likely, Barnabas wanted Paul there as an expert witness. But Paul makes it clear that he returned to Jerusalem because of a vision he received from God, not because of the invitation of Barnabas.
I went up because of a revelation and set before them…the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain. – Galatians 2:2 ESV
As Paul has already made clear, he is not a man-pleaser. He wanted the Galatians to understand that everything he did was under the direction of God, not men. He truly believed that God wanted this matter of the conversion of the Gentiles to become a top priority among the leadership of the growing church. It was essential that all of the apostles be on the same page regarding how these newly converted Gentiles were to be handled.
There were still some who were expecting them to be circumcised and to adhere to the rules and rituals of Judaism. Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles had been hounded by a group of individuals who were demanding that all Gentile converts be circumcised in order to validate their salvation. Paul had vigorously opposed this teaching as a distortion of the gospel message, exposing it for what it was: a blatant contradiction to the message of faith in Christ alone.
In these opening verses of chapter two, Paul informs his readers that he was willing to stand up to the much-revered apostles of Jesus, including Peter, James, and John. Paul was not starry-eyed or awestruck in his meeting with these men. If anything, Paul viewed himself as their equal. While he had not had the privilege of serving as a disciple of Jesus during His three years of earthly ministry, Paul had received His ministry commission from Jesus Himself.
He clearly stated his purpose for going to Jerusalem: “to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain” (Galatians 2:2 ESV). Paul had no doubts about the accuracy of his message, but he was very concerned about the influence of the Judaizers and those who were propagating some kind of hybrid form of salvation that included faith in Christ as well as adherence to Judaism. If those who were demanding circumcision of the Gentiles were not stopped, the purity of the gospel would be damaged.
Paul was preaching a simple plan of salvation that was made possible by the grace of God alone through faith in Christ alone. Nothing else was necessary. To add any other requirement would produce a “contrary” gospel. Any attempt to add good works or obedience to a set of rules or regulations to the gospel would only end up invalidating it.
Adding a requirement of circumcision would undermine the message of the gospel and add an unnecessary barrier or roadblock to the path of salvation. So his trip to Jerusalem was intended to defend his God-ordained message and convince his peers that his ministry to the Gentiles was valid and his message was complete.
As Paul would later tell the believers in Rome, circumcision was a matter of the heart, not the flesh.
For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. – Romans 2:28-29 ESV
While circumcision had been a God-given sign or seal of the unique relationship the people of Israel had with Him, Paul argued that the indwelling Holy Spirit was God’s new seal of approval. Paul told the Gentile believers in Ephesus, “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:13 ESV).
Man has always been obsessed with the idea that there is something he must do to earn favor with God. We are wired to believe that we must work our way into God’s good graces, but the beauty of the gospel is that everything has been done for us. There is nothing for us to add to the equation. It is Jesus plus nothing so that no one can boast or brag. Salvation is the work of God, from beginning to end. As the great old hymn, Rock of Ages, says…
Nothing in my hand I bring,
simply to the cross I cling.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.