Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. 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. But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. 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—to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you. 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. 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 (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles), 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. Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do. – Galatians 2:1-10 ESV
As Paul continued his defense of his apostolic ministry and message, he related how he had been actively ministering the gospel among the Gentiles for another 15 years before he would return to Jerusalem. 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 gives us some important insight into what had been happening. It seems that after the stoning of Stephen in Jerusalem, many of the followers of Christ, fearing for their own lives, fled for their safety. Luke tells us, “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
That is when Barnabas, knowing of Paul’s ministry to Gentiles, decided to pick him up and enlist him in the ministry going on in Antioch. Not long after that, Paul would return with Barnabas to Jerusalem in order to report all that he had seen. 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 had received from God, not because of the invitation of Barnabas. It would seem that God wanted this matter of the conversion of the Gentiles made a top priority in 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 even keep many of the Jewish rules and rituals. 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 opposes 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.
These opening verses in chapter two are Paul’s attempt to let his readers know that he had been willing to stand up to even the apostles, Peter, James and John. He had not been starry eyed or awestruck by his meeting with these men. If anything, Paul saw them himself as their equals. They had each received their 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 that if those who were demanding circumcision of the Gentiles were not stopped, the purity of the gospel would be damaged. He was preaching salvation as made possible by the grace of God alone through faith in Christ alone. No kinds of works were necessary. Adding a requirement of circumcision would undermine that message and add an unnecessary barrier or roadblock to the path of salvation. So his trip to Jerusalem was intended to defend his God-given message and convince his peers that his ministry to the Gentiles was valid and his message was complete, needing nothing more added to it.
As Paul would 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 a right standing before 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.