How Paul remembered the Council of Jerusalem.

by K.W. Leslie, 28 March
Galatians 2.1-5 KWL
1 Afterwards, after 14 years,
I went to Jerusalem again with Joseph Barnabas,
taking along Titus as well.
2 I went, according to a revelation.
I presented to them the gospel which I preach to the gentiles
—in private, and to those apostles of note—
lest somehow I might run, or was running, in vain.
3 But neither Titus, nor the Greeks with me,
were forced to be circumcised
4 because of the infiltrating fake “fellow Christians
who snuck in amongst us to spy on our freedom we have in Christ Jesus,
so they would enslave us.
5 We don’t yield to their position for even an hour,
so that the gospel’s truth might continue among you all.
Previously:
  • “The Council of Jerusalem.” Ac 15.1-12
  • “The former persecutor turned evangelist.” Ga 1.13-24
  • I gave kind of a timeline of Paul’s life in my first article on Galatians. After Jesus appeared to him round the year 35, he visited the apostles three years later (38CE), and soon after they sent him home to Cilicia. Ac 9.30 But a few years later Barnabas, the man who’d first brought him to the apostles, Ac 9.27 came to get him.

    Barnabas had been sent by the apostles to check out a church in Antioch, Syria, where Syrian Greeks—who were gentiles, i.e. non-Israelis—had been led to Jesus. Enthused, Barnabas went to Tarsus and got Paul to join him. Antioch became where Jesus’s followers were first called Χριστιανούς/Hristianús, Christians. Ac 11.19-25

    I figure the year Paul moved to Antioch was anywhere between 38 and 41. See, at some point while they ministered in Antioch, the prophet Agabus said there’d be a famine, Ac 11.28 and Barnabas and Paul were sent to Jerusalem with money. The famine didn’t take place till Claudius became emperor in 41CE, so naturally these events had to happen before 41. As for Barnabas and Paul’s missionary trip, Luke referred to the death of Agrippa Herod 1 in 44CE before he got to their trip… so there, loosely, is when these events took place.

    Okay. So after their missionary trip, Luke told of the events which triggered the Council of Jerusalem:

    Acts 15.1-2 KJV
    1 And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. 2 When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.

    The apostles did try to sort it out themselves, but the visitors from Judea weren’t at all willing to accept Barnabas and Paul’s view, nor authority. So the church leadership decided they’d better hear it from the Jerusalem church. We Christians recognize this as the first of the ancient church councils, where major theological issues were hashed out between all the leading Christians in the world… and of course after the Orthodox and Roman Catholics split, we can’t do these councils anymore. (Not that Catholics don’t claim their councils still count for all Christendom—but nope; they’re only internal church councils now.)

    In today’s passage, Paul only loosely refers to this. This text mainly refers to four things:

    1. He, Barnabas, Titus, and some other “Greeks” (really Greek-speaking Syrians) went to Jerusalem.
    2. He went “according to a revelation,” meaning the Holy Spirit told him to go. (He probably didn’t wanna!)
    3. He privately confirmed the gospel he was preaching with the top apostles, lest he was getting it wrong. (And he’s not. Ga 1.8)
    4. Those apostles never required Titus and the Greeks to be circumcised.

    So basically Paul’s in the right. He made sure of it.

    Becoming Jewish in order to be saved.

    Ancient Jews believed God was gonna save their nation through his Messiah, his anointed king who’d conquer the world on Israel’s behalf. He’d inaugurate God’s kingdom, defeat the wicked, and set right the world. And if you wanted to be saved… it meant you had to be part of the existing nation of Israel.

    But you might be a gentile! But to Pharisees this was no problem: You could become Israeli. Lots of foreigners had, in the past. They denounced their former paganism, got themselves ritually clean, and from that point onward followed the Law of Moses just like a Pharisee would. (Which wasn’t all that strict; they had a lot of loopholes. Not for nothing did Jesus call ’em hypocrites.)

    For men, following the Law began of course with ritual circumcision. The LORD had made it mandatory for Abraham and his descendants:

    Genesis 17.9-14 KJV
    9 And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. 11 And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you. 12 And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed. 13 He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. 14 And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.

    For Pharisees, circumcision was simply what you did if you’re gonna follow God. Wasn’t debated, wasn’t optional. If you kept your foreskin, you were still gentile—and Pharisees (and early Christians, even in Galatians here!) referred to an uncircumcised gentile as an ἀκροβυστία/akrovystía, “foreskin.” Akrovystía more literally is a compound of ἄκρον/ákron (“tip”) and πόσθη/pósthi (“penis”). No I’m not kidding: Even Christians called gentiles “penis-tips.”

    Some of the Pharisees’ foreskin-phobia might’ve had to do with them not liking the Romans. Which I get, ’cause the Romans had been awful to them. A lot of it might’ve been an ancient variant of germophobia: If you weren’t ritually clean, stands to reason you weren’t literally clean either, so if you went into a gentile home it was a lot like visiting a dirty, mildew- and bacteria-filled home; so filthy you not only couldn’t sit down, but probably didn’t want your shoes to touch their floor. And let’s not forget racism: Many Jews today, who recognize they’re God’s chosen people, presume this doesn’t just mean God singles ’em out for certain blessings (and responsibilities), but figure it also means God made them better than non-Jews. More knowledgeable of God’s laws; better able to follow them; karmically deserving of God’s blessings, whereas gentiles really aren’t. As if karma has anything to do with salvation.

    But Simon Peter’s experience had proved it was irrelevant. Under orders from the Holy Spirit, Peter had preached the gospel to Roman gentiles. They believed, and in response the Holy Spirit obviously, audibly filled the gentiles: They spoke in tongues. Peter realized it’d be ridiculous to make the gentiles jump through further hoops before he could declare them Christian, and immediately had ’em baptized. Ac 10.44-48 And after sharing his story with “the circumcision party” in Jerusalem, they rightly quit objecting: God lets gentiles into his kingdom too. Ac 11.18 The Spirit clearly doesn’t see circumcision to be the impediment the Pharisees had.

    But social stigmas are a hard thing to give up, and foreskin-phobic Christians started telling the Antioch gentiles they too needed circumcision. Barnabas and Paul solidly opposed them. Not because Christians needn’t follow the Law anymore; Paul makes that clear elsewhere. Ro 6.1-2 But because ritual cleanliness, and ritual circumcision, are superseded by the Holy Spirit. The purpose of ritual cleanliness was to prepare for God’s presence. But because the Holy Spirit indwells us, we’re never not in God’s presence. We’re his temple now. 1Co 3.16 It doesn’t mean we can now stop bathing, washing, and cleaning our homes and workplaces. But its ritual aspects are kinda moot when we ourselves are the Spirit’s temple.

    Okay, but should Christians get circumcised after we turn to Jesus, along with all the other good deeds he expects of us? Should we circumcise our kids, recognizing it represents how we want ’em to grow up with a relationship with God? (Plus, y’know, hygiene?) Well, the answers to these questions vary from person to person. Everybody’s different. Paul circumcised Timothy, y’know. Ac 16.3 Yes, even though Paul stated some pretty strong views about how circumcision was unnecessary. Circumcision made sense for Timothy. Does it make sense for you? Talk it over with the Holy Spirit. But don’t do it out of legalism, out of a baseless fear you’ll lose your salvation ’cause you sinned. God doesn’t work like that.

    And this is the whole problem with legalists: They insist God does work like that. Too many sins and you’re going ot hell. God’s grace has its limits. And other unhealthy, destructive attitudes which don’t reflect the gospel whatsoever, and turn people into dark Christians—or drive ’em to quit Jesus altogether.

    Legalism and heresy.

    When Barnabas, Paul, and the legalists went to Jerusalem to sort it out, the apostles and elders listened to Peter, Barnabas and Paul, and likely (and fairly) the pro-circumcision guys. Then James gave his ruling, the rest of the apostles and elders agreed, and this became official church doctrine: Circumcision isn’t a problem. But stay far away from idolatry, which is a problem, and undermines your new Christianity.

    Church councils are kinda like Supreme Court rulings, and final. But you know how people are. They don’t care what the Supreme Court rules, figure over time they can get it overturned; figure they, not the justices, know best. And legalists likewise figured they knew best, not James. So even though James sent people to Antioch to explain the Council’s conclusion, Ac 15.22-33 Paul still, and always, had to contend with people who taught otherwise. Even though the Council’s conclusion had pretty much confirmed the legalists’ teachings were heresy.

    Yep, heresy—when you get God so wrong, you’re not teaching Christianity anymore. You’re teaching something else altogether. False Christianity. False gospels. “Consider them cursed,” Paul wrote, Ga 1.8-9 ’cause they’re not gonna do us any good. They’re just gonna spread corruption, confuse people, create wedges, and drive some Christians to despair and apostasy.

    Fr’instance say you’re gay. If a legalist convinces you it’s impossible to be saved unless you’re not gay, what’re you going to do? Well you might—and many have—go to some therapist who promises to brainwash you till you’re no longer gay; usually with some sort of aversion technique which is torture instead of therapy. More often you’ll just conclude if being gay automatically sends you to hell, there’s no escaping hell… and why pursue Jesus if he hates you so much? And in this way many a legalist has driven out many a gay Christian. And it’s ten times as hard to bring ’em back to Jesus.

    Same is true for everything legalists add to Christianity, and turn into requirements which must be fulfilled before God can accept us. Like circumcision. Like leaving our unmarried partners once we become Christian (as if God considers government-registered marriages valid, but not common-law marriages), because it’s somehow different than Paul telling Christians not to abandon their unbelieving spouses. 1Co 7.12-24 Like being required to take new-believers’ classes—and sometimes having to pay for these classes—or fulfilling certain other obligations before they can be baptized. Like any form of cleaning up, dressing the part, and acting holy—which is more hypocrisy than anything.

    Not for nothing does Paul call such people ψευδαδέλφους/psevdadélfus, “fake brothers [in Christ].” They were heretics; they aren’t properly Christian. They’re teaching a “gospel” of rules and legalism and karma. Plenty of churches still teach this gospel, and yeah they’re heretics. Every legalist church is a cult. Doesn’t matter how orthodox they look otherwise.

    Coming to Jesus isn’t complicated. Following him is, but getting into the kingdom is as simple as “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Lk 23.42 And you’re in. You’re saved. You might quit, but Jesus is never throwing you out. Jn 6.37 Doesn’t cost a thing; doesn’t require you cut anything off.

    So not for nothing does Paul have some very harsh words for legalists.