The Problem: Those from Syrian Antioch: Part 2
by John Lowe
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.
“No small dissension” really means they had a real “battle royal!” It was a heated debate. Clashes always come when some newly experienced truth disturbs a privileged group. People generally get apprehensive when their traditional viewpoints are challenged, unless they are open to new understandings and competent to test new insight and courageous to cross new frontiers. The group soon realized that such a basic issue could not be settled in Antioch. It needed the attention of the whole church, since all Christians, Jew, and Gentile, would be affected by its resolution. In Galatians 2:2 Paul says he went to Jerusalem by revelation. There is no contradiction of course. The Spirit of God revealed to Paul that he should go, and also revealed to the church in Antioch that the brethren should send him. God gave Paul a revelation instructing him to take the whole matter to the Jerusalem church leaders (Gal. 2:2), and to this, the Antioch assembly agreed (v. 2). An “ecumenical conference” was arranged in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the “mother church.” The apostles were there. It was the suitable site to debate such an important issue. It is unclear who appointed Paul and Barnabas “and certain other of them” to represent Antioch in Jerusalem. The Western text1 has the Judaizing group summoning Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem “to be judged.” More likely the Antioch church appointed them as its official delegates to the meeting. Paul mentioned that Titus accompanied him and Barnabas to Jerusalem (Galatians 2:1), so he may have been one of the “others” mentioned in this verse. These “others” probably went along, as witnesses. These witnesses would probably protect Paul and Barnabas against being accused of distorting the facts.
We need to recognize here that it is really the Gospel that is under question at the council. The Epistle to the Galatians gives us a full explanation of the council.
3 And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren.
The distance between Antioch and Jerusalem was in excess of 250 miles, and the apostles may well have spent a month or so on their journey. They used the opportunity to visit congregations along the way. It could also be described as a “campaign trip,” since most of these congregations would likely be sympathetic with their viewpoint that Gentiles should not be burdened with circumcision and the Torah. This would be especially true of the Christians of “Phoenicia and Samaria” whose congregations were likely established by the same Hellenists who reached out to the Gentiles in Antioch (11:19-20). The congregations along their route rejoiced at the news of Paul and Barnabas’s success among the Gentiles. Evidently, they did not share the misgivings of the Judaizing Christians.
“And being brought on their way by the church” suggests that they were escorted to Jerusalem by some members of the Antioch church.
4 And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them.
When the Antioch delegation arrived in Jerusalem, they were well received by the “apostles and elders.” These would be the central groups in the deliberation. The gathering was not a “church council” in the denominational sense, but rather a meeting of the leaders who heard the various groups and then made their decision. Peter would be the spokesman for the apostles, and James would represent the elders. Just as Paul and Barnabas had reported the details of their mission to the sponsoring church at Antioch (14:27) and to the congregations on their way (15:3), so now they shared with the leaders in Jerusalem what God had done through them. They gave them a full account of the Gospel they had been preaching to the Gentiles, and the apostles and elders had to admit that it was the same Gospel they had been preaching to the Jews. The two missionaries told them, “We have preached the Gospel, and men and women, over in the Galatian country have trusted Christ. They know nothing about Mosaic Law. They trusted Christ and were saved.” No doubt they provided sufficient evidence to verify the genuineness of the Gentiles’ salvation (Acts 10:44-48; 11:17-18). The apostles’ mission of spreading the Gospel was the major reason the Holy Spirit empowered them. This small group of men, led by the Spirit, drastically altered world history, and the Gospel message eventually reached all parts of the earth (Matthew 28:19-20). Paul and Barnabas were among the first missionaries to the Gentiles who preached salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. The emphasis on God’s blessing through Jesus was essential. That God’s leading was so evident in accepting the Gentiles apart from the Law would determine the final outcome of the conference.
“And when they were come to Jerusalem” it marked Paul’s third visit after his conversion, and what occurred on this occasion is related in Galatians 2:1-10.
5 But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.
The reception was somewhat cooler from a group of believers who belonged to the “sect of the Pharisees.” It was perhaps some of their group who had first stirred up the controversy in Antioch. They at least shared the same viewpoint: Gentiles who become Christians must undergo Jewish proselyte procedure. They must be circumcised. They must live by the entire Jewish Law. It was not the moral aspects of the law that presented the problem but its ritual provisions. The moral law, such as embodied in the Ten Commandments, was never in question. Paul, for instance, constantly reminded his churches of God’s moral standards in his letters. The ritual aspects of the Law presented a problem. These were the provisions that marked Jews off from other people—circumcision, the food laws, scrupulous ritual purity. They were what made the Jews Jews and seemed strange and arbitrary to most Gentiles. To have required these of Gentiles would, in essence, have made them into Jews and cut them off from the rest of the Gentiles. It would have severely restricted, perhaps even killed, any effective Gentile mission. The stakes were high in the Jerusalem Conference.
There was nothing to prevent a Pharisee from accepting Jesus as Messiah while retaining the distinctive Pharisaic tenants, but they tended to be legally minded Christians. (Paul, of course, was the great exception to this tendency.) Therefore it should come as no surprise that some of the Pharisees had become Christians. Pharisees believed in resurrection, life after death, and the coming Messiah. They shared the basic convictions of the Christians. Because of this, they are sometimes in Acts found defending the Christians against the Sadducees2, who had much less in common with Christian views: “Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail” (Acts 5:17-18). A major barrier between Christians and Pharisees was the extensive use of oral tradition3 by the Pharisees, which Jesus and Paul both rejected as human tradition. It is not surprising that some Pharisees came to embrace Christ as the Messiah in whom they had hoped. For all their emphasis on Law, it is also not surprising that they would be reticent to receive anyone into the fellowship in a manner not in accordance with tradition. That tradition was well-established for proselytes—circumcision and the whole yoke of the Law. Pharisees were generally members of the “circumcision party.” They feared that the Gentile Christians were always in danger of reverting to their former sinful manner of life and that the whole Christian community might be dragged down to the level of Gentile immorality.
The only approach that you can make to Jesus Christ is by faith. We must all come to Him by faith. He won’t let us come any other way. Jesus said, “. . . I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). God is saying, “My Son died for you. What will you do with Him?” The answer to that question will determine your eternal destiny. This is the issue being discussed in the council at Jerusalem. This is really exciting.