The Jerusalem Council: The Second Serious Error of the Apostles
It should be troubling for the serious student of the Scriptures to learn that a very significant part of the “Christian assembly” in Jerusalem (“[the] many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed” Act 21.20) must be regarded as false—with the full collusion of its leaders, notably James the brother of the Lord! We’re brought inexorably to this startling conclusion by the details supplied by the Holy Spirit Himself long ages ago.
Without doubt, this is a turbulent and difficult time for the early church. But, they became ensnared in something so deadly, so divisive and destructive to the gospel of grace that its effects are still felt to the current age.
[It is worth considering that the Apostle’s warning in Romans chapter 11 regarding the Jewish nation generally also applies to the so-called “Jewish Christians” namely, those who let legalism corrupt free grace and turn their view of Christianity into something dead and merely religious. I devote another chapter to this topic.]
I want to be clear on this point: I don't believe that the Jerusalem “Apostles and Elders” were fundamentally malevolent; rather, they were devoted to traditions and allowed themselves to become irresponsible regarding the efficacy, scope and elegance of the gospel of grace. Most of them appeared unable to recognize that the Law was only “our tutor, to bring us to Christ.” (Gal 3.23-24)
As a result, they let an error begin, grow and fester in Jerusalem; later it spread throughout the Mediterranean region. Stated another way, they treated the gospel of grace with “practical contempt” (my term). This is seen dramatically in Acts chapters 21 and 22.
The purpose of this chapter is to detail from the Scriptures how this conclusion is not only possible but required if we are to be true to the Word and the history it reveals—as well as to learn from it.
This has been a difficult chapter to write because the modern church tends to view the NT age as the “golden age” of Christianity, as a (all-too-brief!) time when Christianity lived up to its potential.
The truth of the matter is very, very different, as the following details…
I present the details of the growth of incipient legalism in four subpoints:
- Incipient Legalism: It Began in Jerusalem but Debuted in Syrian Antioch
- Incipient Legalism: The Council of Jerusalem
- Incipient Legalism: After the Council of Jerusalem and the Rebuke of Peter
- Incipient Legalism: Its Multiple Attempts to Murder the Apostle Paul
Incipient Legalism: It Began in Jerusalem but Debuted in Syrian Antioch
There is an ominous harbinger of incipient legalism in Acts chapter 11. The chapter opens with the “cultural fallout” from the Apostle Peter’s visit to Cornelius (who was sent there by the Lord Himself to preach the gospel to them!):
Now the apostles and the brethren who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those who were circumcised took issue with him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.”
GASP!?!? A Jewish Christian visited and had dinner with Gentile Christians! That this action was taken by Divine appointment appears to have escaped their notice.
Those same disciples also missed the stunning significance of the fact that the Lord began to call Gentiles through grace to Himself through the ministry of the Apostle Peter!
Remember, Peter did not go to the Gentiles on his own initiative; he had to be sent (in spite of the fact of the Great Commission years earlier)!
It is evident that the early Apostles and disciples were not inclined to obey this very clear command as it applied to bringing the gospel to the Gentiles:
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations ...
Why was it that the Lord found it necessary to repeat His commission by means of a vision to the Apostle Peter? Peter and the others should have been pursuing this course already, long before the time of the vision. Instead, when Peter, because of the vision, finally went to the Gentiles the response of his fellow Jewish brethren was shock, dismay and contempt despite of the fact the LORD blessed those Gentiles with the grace of the gospel and the Holy Spirit, just as He had done for the Jews!
To borrow a common phrase: “What’s wrong with this picture!?!?” How could those early Jewish Christians have been so obstinate! Did they really experience the grace of salvation?
The narrative continued with the detail that Peter was required to “justify” his going there (because of a divine vision, no less!) to preach the gospel.
[The original is quite interesting:
ἀρξάμενος δὲ Πέτρος ἐξετίθετο αὐτοῖς καθεξῆς λέγων …
[lit., But Peter was laying out for them in order, saying …]
The verb ἐξετίθετο is in the imperfect tense; apparently, Peter had to keep repeating what he told them (that is, Luke's use of the imperfect instead of the aorist). Those who were listening to him just didn’t seem to “get it” very quickly, easily or willingly. They truly didn’t understand the scope and power of free grace. In fact, their "knee-jerk" reaction was to rebel against it!]
After Peter carefully explained (the imperfect, over and over!) that the LORD sent him there and had witnessed (along with the other Jewish Christians who were with Peter) how the LORD worked powerfully in hearts of those who heard, those in Jerusalem were finally forced to conclude:
Therefore if God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.”
This realization and attendant confession, though, would be as fleeting as the obedience of their forefathers in the OT.
There are a pair of stunning details to consider. The first is this:
Now the apostles and the brethren who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God.
So, to state the obvious: the matter of Peter’s visit to the Gentiles was generally known to a very broad Jewish audience. (The significance of this will be seen below.)
Luke records the second surprising detail immediately following v. 18:
So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that occurred in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus.
Most of the Jewish Christians continued to share the gospel with Jews only despite the Divine commission repeated to Peter! Only a few of them began to be obedient to the Lord Christ’s commission as the persecution of Christians spread throughout the region.
In Act 11.19-20 it details that many were scattered because of the persecution. But from where were the Jewish Christians scattered? From Jerusalem!
So, even though the Lord Christ gave the command long before that time to go to “all the nations”, the early Apostles and disciples failed miserably to obey that command! Persecution forced them to spread out to other regions and nations, but even in those new locations they were selective concerning those with whom they shared the grace of the gospel. For all practical purposes, at that time and to those Jewish converts, and relative to the gospel of grace, the Gentiles did not exist and were basically considered unworthy to even hear the gospel from the Christian Jews!
They may have said (Act 11.18) “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.”, but they didn’t act consistently with that confession.
"After all", their thinking must have been, "the Gentiles are an accursed culture! Why bother with them?"
The Jewish Christians, especially those that apparently returned to Jerusalem many years later (perhaps persecution had begun to dwindle?), were falling under the influence of incipient legalism.
It would be only a matter of time until their ranks were swelled with those who were “Christian in name only” and knew nothing “real” of the power of free grace.
Acts chapter 14 closes with the conclusion of the very successful first missionary journey of the Apostle Paul and Barnabas, who then returned home to Syrian Antioch:
When they had arrived and gathered the church together, they began to report all things that God had done with them and how He had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. And they spent a long time with the disciples.
But, the opening of chapter 15 is very abrupt. It truly was a “shot across the bow” of the gospel of free grace by professing Jewish Christians still stuck in Law:
Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.
Using the time spans the Apostle Paul tells us in Galatians chapters 1 and 2 (3 years + 14 years), it is evident that took at least 15 years for that error to progress as far as it had.
[As the rest of the NT records, the true church continued to experience the recurrent attacks of legalism. There would always be within its professing ranks a (large?) Jewish contingent who were not satisfied with the sufficiency of grace and believed the hellish deception that they needed to supply something of their own works. According to them, without the admixture of their works, true salvation could not begin, or at the very least, could not develop and/or be maintained properly.]
Incipient legalism had (and still has!) these goals:
- to degrade the value, elegance, authority, sufficiency and scope of free grace;
- to add human merit to the process under the mistaken notion that these are necessary to make oneself (more) pleasing to the LORD.
This is “another gospel”, one accursed. It is a theological virus that can only destroy; however, it is also different from a virus in that it simultaneously claims to save the host it actively seeks to destroy.
Luke tells us that “the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas … should go up to Jerusalem …”. However, there is a “back story” of what must have happened with Paul in Syrian Antioch, something not mentioned by Luke.
The Jewish legalists launched the attack; Paul and Barnabas countered vigorously. The original it interesting:
γενομένης δὲ στάσεως καὶ ζητήσεως οὐκ ὀλίγης τῷ Παύλῳ καὶ τῷ Βαρνάβᾳ πρὸς αὐτούς
[lit., “it came about, dissension and debate, not a little, Paul and Barnabas with others …”]
The nouns “dissension and debate” open the sentence, a position used for emphasis. How did Luke describe the interchange? It was “not a little”! Again, a Greek semantic used for emphasis.
Paul and Barnabas had seen firsthand the power of grace within both Jews and Gentiles; it is likely that literally thousands had met the Lord Christ by faith through their ministry. And all of it was accomplished purely and only by the free grace of the LORD; there was no admixture of Law of any sort—before, during or after their salvation.
But, Luke does not mention a very important detail of the debate in Syrian Antioch and its subsequent decision by the brethren:
Then after an interval of fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along also. It was because of a revelation that I went up …
Luke implies that the decision to go to Jerusalem was a joint conclusion by the brethren in Syrian Antioch while Paul makes the specific point that it was “because of a [divine] revelation …”.
[Note that there is no explicit subject in the second half of the verse:
… the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem …
The verb ἔταξαν (“determined”, aorist, 3rd plural) contains the implied subject; the NASB supplies “the brethren” in italics.]
At first glance, they appear to be very different. How are they to be harmonized?
The resolution is both simple and biblical. Remember that Paul makes the very significant point in the first chapter of Galatians that he was assigned to preach the gospel to the Gentiles by the Lord Himself. He knew that no other authority was needed; he certainly didn’t need (or seek) Jerusalem’s approval.
When Luke described the debate, he used the aorist tense (γενομένης, “had” …); Paul and Barnabas debated the issue with the legalists and, once finished (aorist), apparently viewed it as a settled matter. There was nothing else to do—certainly not to travel to Jerusalem to “rubber stamp” a decision that Paul already made—despite the urging of his brethren.
The Lord had other plans, however. He sent Paul, Barnabas and others to Jerusalem, but not to validate the gospel that Paul had been preaching because that would be completely unnecessary.
[Such an interpretation would also imply that the Lord needed the approval of the Jerusalem Apostles and Elders—something inarguably absurd! The day the LORD needs man's approval for anything is the day the universe self-destructs!]
What was evident was that the view of the gospel of grace held by Jerusalem’s leaders (the “Apostles and Elders”) had become careless and/or corrupted. They truly were on the verge of reverting to legalism.
The trip was not for Paul, Barnabas, or even the church in Syrian Antioch! Rather, the situation in Jerusalem had become critical! The visit by the delegation from Antioch was a divine warning to the Jerusalem “Apostles and Elders” that they were on a fatal trajectory, something that needed to be corrected decisively and quickly!
To borrow an OT example, it was a Balaam and donkey encounter! (Num 22.31-32) The only difference is that Balaam was not quite as stubborn as the legalists in Jerusalem.
It is no surprise that from its ranks the legalists began their hellish “evangelism” to bring the Gentiles believers back into “bondage”! (Gal 2.4)
It should be very easy now to accept the truth that the Lord was pleased to place the record of this extremely critical event into a pair of full chapters of Scripture: Acts chapter 15 and Galatians chapter 2. This attack was nothing less than the attempt to undo free grace and revert to Law by those who, though they confessed the Lord Christ who obviously did not really know Him as the Lord of free grace! (Mat 7.21-23)
Incipient Legalism: The Council of Jerusalem
The Apostle Paul was obedient to the revelation: he, Barnabas and others traveled from Syrian Antioch to Jerusalem “concerning this issue” (Act 15.2). When they arrived, it didn’t take long for the legalists to once again publicly press their attack on free grace:
But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.”
And, just as in Syrian Antioch, there was “great debate” (Act 15.7).
The glaring point here is “Why was there any debate in the first place? How did the situation within the Jerusalem leadership get so out-of-control? How did the legalists establish a foothold in what should have been the stronghold of grace?”
There was no doubt: the gospel of grace had been corrupted by legalism within the Jerusalem leadership!
As Paul described it later:
But it was because of the false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage.
It is vital to note that Paul does not regard those legalists in Jerusalem as true Christians! Moreover, if allowed to develop and spread, this error would work unthinkable damage to Christianity.
Remember this ominous warning from Paul (sometime after the Council):
You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.
In the very best case, Christianity would have two competing groups: Jewish and Gentile, who likely would never “be of one mind” as they were commanded. [cf., Phi 1.27; 2.2; 1 Pet 3.8] Each would consider itself the “true” branch of Christianity while denigrating the other.
[An interesting parallel exists in our age: so-called conservative evangelical churches who provide “traditional” and “contemporary” services. If you think about this, by definition, such a church is divided; they aren’t and can’t “be of one mind” as the Bible commands since they can’t even agree on how to conduct a time of praise in music.]
In the worst case, free grace would be lost forever as it degraded into dead, man-made religion. It would truly be an “accursed gospel”, capable of nothing true and good, and able to save no one.
[Of course, true Christianity exists only within a remnant in any age, including our own. The overwhelming majority of those who claim to be Christian will hear the following, chilling words when the Lord returns and executes the Judgment of the Nations: “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.” (Mat 7.23)]
After the initial debate, Peter took the stage; he was, after all, the one the Lord chose to send specifically to the Gentiles in the first place. Paul and Barnabas then spoke, having the greatest experience by far in working within the Gentiles compared to anyone else in that “elite”—and very Jewish—group.
That pair of defenses from two faithful, God-authorized-and-sent evangelists should have been more than enough.
Sadly, it wasn’t! The characteristic—and deadly—Jewish obstinance of the OT was on full display.
When Paul and Barnabas finished (σιγῆσαι, aorist infinitive, “became silent”), James the brother of the Lord decided to speak.
[Commentators note that there is no debate or discussion after James speaks and therefore his is the “final word”. This is probably a correct understanding and lends credibility to the assertion that James was the de facto leader in Jerusalem.]
Something very significant and troubling is taking place. As shown in this chapter, the Apostle Peter had a unique and divinely-appointed position as the group’s leader. Moreover, in the opening chapters of Acts, Peter takes an active leadership position.
According to the chronology of Galatians chapter 1, a minimum of 17 years had to have transpired before the Council. In that time, what happened to Peter?
Peter is no longer the leader of the Jerusalem Apostles—or even the Jerusalem Christians!
He may have spoken first at the Council, but his words were largely ignored relative to the “big picture” (as were the Apostle Paul's). It was James:
1. who made that truly pitiful "essentials decision";
2. who wrote the instructions to the Gentile churches;
3. who was still clearly in control in Jerusalem when Paul, after completing his 3rd missionary journey, traveled to Jerusalem;
4. whose terrible advice to the Apostle Paul nearly got the latter killed by the so-called “brethren”.
Indeed, where was Peter? Why is he absent from the history of Acts after the Council?
James first goes to Scripture and made good use of a pertinent text, an excerpt from Amos chapter 9:
So that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord,
And all the Gentiles who are called by My name,
After the quote, his conclusion began well enough:
Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles
but after that good beginning “went downhill quickly”. Like so many Jews before him, he apparently believed that he had to add his own traditions to the work of God:
but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood.
Remember how the Lord Christ upbraided the Pharisees regarding tradition:
And He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:
‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me.
But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’
Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.”
He was also saying to them, “You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. … thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that.”
This is precisely what James did! Where, in the context of Amos 9, is there anything resembling the rules that he sent out officially to the Gentile converts? It isn’t there; it was a new tradition added by James at that time!
[Remember, in Act 21.25, James still referred to the letter he sent in Acts chapter 15 when Paul returned many years later to Jerusalem (at the end of his third missionary journey). As far as James was concerned, that letter was still to be regarded as a “standing order” for Gentile Christians.]
Let’s look at exactly what it was that James wrote at the conclusion of that fateful Council as his summary recommendations for the Gentile Christians…
If you review competent commentaries on Acts chapter 15, you’ll notice a pattern: generally, the commentators struggle with the bizarre, disjoint list of “essentials” that James specified:
For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.
[I dealt with the stunning farce of “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit” detail here.]
So, let’s examine this list point by point:
- abstain from things sacrificed to idols
- [abstain] from blood
- [abstain] from things strangled
- [abstain] from fornication
Because commentators assume that James acted correctly, they therefore need to find a way to justify this grotesque mishmash of “essentials”. James was still “obliged” to the Law and Jewish culture; this set of rules he defined as “essential” are contrary to the grace and certainly have no place in the gospel of grace!
[If some object that I refer to my inclusion of “abstinence from fornication” as contrary to grace, I offer this:
It is certainly consistent with the gospel of grace that the Christian lead a holy life; this, of course, includes an implicit command to avoid all forms of immorality. For example, look at the scope of these:
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?
1 Pet 1.15-16
but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
What is nonsensical about James’ assertion regarding fornication specifically is:
- Why did he stop there? What about any number of other sins? Shouldn’t the Gentiles also be reminded to abstain from murder, theft, lying, and every other sin listed in OT law?
- Moreover, if James was intent on specifying “essentials”, this must imply that sins other than sexual immorality are “not essential”! (Otherwise, words cease to have meaning.)
Of course, such reasoning would be lunacy and greatly unfair to James—I’m certain that he had no such thought.
But the problem remains: by extracting only “fornication” from all sins he implicitly mitigates the moral gravity of anything not mentioned.
There simply is no way to view these “essentials” in any biblically consistent manner.]
The first three “essentials” at least appear to be loosely related, though the reasoning presented by the commentators for this typically is typically so convolved as to become completely idiotic.
Beginning with “abstinence from meat sacrificed to idols”, you'll find that if you search the OT law, you’ll find no such prohibition.
There are very few Bible references in which are found mentions of the consumption of meat within the context of sacrifices to idols:
But rather, you are to tear down their altars and smash their sacred pillars and cut down their Asherim—for you shall not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God—otherwise you might make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land and they would play the harlot with their gods and sacrifice to their gods, and someone might invite you to eat of his sacrifice,
While Israel remained at Shittim, the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. For they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel joined themselves to Baal of Peor, and the Lord was angry against Israel.
And He will say,
‘Where are their gods, the rock in which they sought refuge?
Who ate the fat of their sacrifices, and drank the wine of their drink offering?
Let them rise up and help you, let them be your hiding place!‘
But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality.
But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols.
The sin here is not the eating of meat sacrificed to idols per se. Rather, it is the sin of idolatry with any and all its trappings and ceremony.
[I devote a complete chapter to this topic in the discussions of 1 Corinthians chapters 8 and 10, chapters the Apostle found necessary to write to correct misunderstandings of this issue in Corinth which very likely had its roots in the aftermath of the Council.]
You do find the prohibition against the consumption of blood. Immediately following the Flood, the LORD gave as food to mankind the consumption of animal flesh, but with the following stipulation:
Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.
But, like the “essential” of abstinence from fornication, why was “abstinence from blood” singled out from the hundreds of OT statutes and ordinances? Were the others, therefore, “not essential”?
Last of all, James enacted something entirely new: “abstinence from things strangled”. You’ll search the OT in vain to find anything resembling this; there is no mention anywhere of “things strangled”.
Once again, the speculation among commentators runs amok here particularly. As I mentioned earlier, since they typically proceed from the false assumption that James acted responsibly they must therefore find some way to justify his addition of an ordinance that was not found in OT Law. The commonly accepted reasoning is that James believed that the Gentiles couldn’t/wouldn’t “figure out” the simple fact that if they consumed animal flesh that had not been properly bled out—something that would occur if the animal died by strangulation—that therefore they must be told explicitly that the consumption of an animal that died in this manner was forbidden.
[This raises an interesting question for the anthropologist: has there ever been any people or culture in any time or place that killed their food animals routinely by strangulation? Generally, it’s by an instrument that punctures or cuts the animal which, presumably, allows at least some of the blood to be released.
Even fishing does not kill fish by strangulation; they die of asphyxiation. Both methods restrict oxygen, to be sure, but the mechanism is very different; the implementation of the former is active while (in the case of fish) the latter is passive.]
This “essential” has all the earmarks of something very Jewish: the addition of a new tradition to “supplement” the Law.
The simple truth is: there is nothing “essential” in any element of this list because the list should never have been imposed upon the Gentiles—or even considered—in the first place!
Before leaving the discussion of the Council there is one more detail to consider:
Commentators tend to justify the Council and its decision as the overarching recommendation to the Gentile converts regarding how they could coexist socially and amicably with their Jewish brethren.
That is, the hodgepodge list developed by James sets up the rules by which the Gentile would not offend (or at least minimize offense to) the Jewish Christians—should the latter decide to “drop by for dinner” some evening. “Since”, the typical reasoning of the commentators continues, “the Gentiles were quite accustomed to buying meat from sources that the Jews would consider morally offensive, they needed to be sensitive to this and not place a stumbling block in the way of the Jewish Christians.”
This sounds plausible (assuming you didn't really take the time to think about it seriously), except for a few very important elements:
- The overriding reason for the Council meeting was to discuss circumcision; they did, and (correctly, though it was neither a difficult nor complex decision!) asserted that the rite of circumcision was not to be forced upon the Gentile converts. They should have left the discussion with that conclusion!
- For reasons that appear to be related more to the fact the James was a Jew rather than from solid biblical reasoning, he added a bizarre list of requirements. If he really had social interaction of Gentile and Jewish Christians in mind (a questionable perspective for sure!) then the rules that he set up are very one-sided! That is, where are the corresponding recommendations for the Jewish Christians regarding the “indifferent” elements they should avoid to refrain from offending Gentiles?
The simplest, most direct way to view the Council, and still be true to the gospel of grace and Bible truth, is to accept the fact that it was a major failure. Moreover, it did not impede the Jewish legalists in any way other than to “overrule” their hellish desire to see Gentiles be circumcised as a condition of salvation.
Legalism thrived in Jerusalem after the Council, as the next section shows.
Incipient Legalism: After the Council of Jerusalem and the Rebuke of Peter
I documented here the likely sequence of events before, during, and after the Council.
[It would be useful to review that now for the discussion to follow.]
Luke records for us that following the Council, Paul, Barnabas and the others traveled back to Syrian Antioch (Act 15.30) where they reported on the meeting. The congregation there was very pleased with the results:
having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. When they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement.
You may at this point be inclined to think: “You just made the point that the Council and its decision was a failure. How can you maintain this position with the text you just quoted?”
The answer is very simple: remember that the last time the brethren in Syrian Antioch saw Paul and Barnabas they were “neck deep” resisting the attacks by the legalists who insisted that the Gentiles needed to be circumcised to be saved.
[Also remember that those same legalists made an even broader claim once the group had re-convened in Jerusalem: “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.” (Act 15.5)]
In that context, it was completely legitimate for the Gentile converts to rejoice: relative to their position in the Christian church, the legalists had been defeated regarding the matter of circumcision. They did not need the Law of Moses because they had been freed from the Law by the grace of the Lord Christ.
It appears, both within the congregation and with the Apostle Paul, to regard the “essentials” supplied by James either as indifferent or something that they were willing to do should the need arise. The matter simply didn’t have the theological, intrinsic scope of free grace.
And, a very important detail emerged from Paul in the second half of Galatians chapter 2: the Jews tended not to eat with Gentiles anyway. So, what James wrote simply would not ever see the practical “light of day” among the Gentile churches.
[Paul did have to deal with meat, sacrifices and idols in a pair of chapters in 1 Corinthians, but even there he does not present it in a Jewish vs. Gentile “social interaction” context. Rather, he deals with the matter from the much better perspective of conscience as is shown in this chapter.]
After his record of the Council meeting and its results, the Apostle added a very significant detail in Galatians chapter 2 regarding a pivotal event which occurred in Syrian Antioch after the Council:
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
[It is difficult to determine exactly where the public rebuke of Peter ends and Paul’s commentary on the event begins. It might end with v.14 or continue through the end of the chapter. For the discussion below it doesn’t really matter.]
I provide below the reasons why the confrontation with Peter occurred after the Council in Jerusalem, not before!
But, what was this confrontation? Why did it happen? Why did the Apostle Paul react with such passion and gravity that he found it necessary to publicly confront a leader, and not just any leader: he confronted the Apostle Peter! Remember that it was Peter through whom the gospel first came to the Gentiles and the one who stood with Paul against the legalists at the Council!
The text uses the imperfect tense for the verb “used to eat” (συνήσθιεν) to describe how Peter socialized with the Gentile Christians before the arrival of the legalists. That is, throughout some period Peter had become accustomed to eating with the Gentiles; he was (at least ostensibly) comfortable with it. But, there was a gradual change in his behavior once “certain men from James” (Gal 2.12) arrived. The same tense (imperfect) is used to describe this transition; he slowly and consistently withdrew from the Gentiles (ὑπέστελλεν).
However, the moment that the Apostle Paul noticed what was happening (“But when I saw …”, εἶδον, aorist), he acted. Later, Paul would write to Timothy regarding elders:
1 Tim 5.20
Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning.
The event in Galatians chapter 2 is the first illustration of this principle at work; it is easy to believe that Paul had the Syrian Antioch event in mind when he wrote that rule to Timothy many years later. The sin was public; the rebuke must be public as well.
Peter’s actions show just how deep the Jews’ disdain for Gentiles ran; essentially, it was part of their “national DNA”. And, had not Paul intervened in such a dramatic way, the early Christian church would have become just another failed religion on the scrapheap of history, a dead religion having Gentile and Jewish sects which likely would never agree on anything of substance.
It is vital to note how Paul, under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, describes the Jewish legalists: “certain men from James”. When the topic was introduced in Acts chapter 15 it was the non-specific “Some men came down from Judea…” (Act 15.1); here it is very specific.
For these men to have been “from James”, something very important—and very destructive!—had to be at work in the Jerusalem “Apostles and Elders”: in the interval between the end of the Council and their visit to Syrian Antioch, the legalists had apparently convinced James that it was vital at least to maintain their cultural distance from the Gentiles—Christians or not!
It appears likely that James had “second thoughts” on what had happened in during the Council. While I’m convinced that he understood why circumcision had to be denied, I’m equally convinced that in his mind he constructed an artificial wall between Jewish and Gentile believers. He either didn’t remember, didn't know or didn't believe this prayer of the Lord Christ:
“I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.”
In verse 20 the Lord Christ clearly refers to Gentiles who will believe once the gospel has been shared with them. And, most importantly, they will be one with Christ just as the Jewish believers will be.
There was no excuse for James’ actions; he yielded to the hellish logic of the legalists, then sent them to Syrian Antioch to enforce his “no-fraternization-with-Gentiles” policy (lacking a better term). They were, apparently, very effective:
… fearing the party of the circumcision. The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy.
It might be difficult for us in our day to understand how and why Peter and the others actually feared the legalists. Perhaps the legalists appealed to their nationalism or, conversely, shamed them regarding the usually detestable and immoral behavior of (lost!) Gentiles. (That is, something like "How could you possibly associate with anyone whose background is as wretched and immoral as these Gentiles!) Or, it might be nothing more than the “human” need/preference by a person to be accepted by other people: specifically, the Jewish Christians to remain to be accepted by other Jews generally.
Whatever the psychological underpinnings, the Jewish Christians in Syrian Antioch were crippled beyond any semblance of true Christian love and unity. It wasn’t that they had gone off on some parallel course or even some tangent; they were going at breakneck speed in the opposite direction. Everything about their actions indicated exactly one fact very clearly:
Paul sums up this spectacular sin in vv.15-21 with one of the most dramatic contrasts between Law and free grace found in the NT:
We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified. But if, while seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have also been found sinners, is Christ then a minister of sin? May it never be! For if I rebuild what I have once destroyed, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.
The actions of Peter and the others can’t be excused as merely the desire to maintain their Jewish culture. Their actions toward the Gentile converts screamed
“The Lord Christ may have brought you into His light and life and granted to you the same Holy Spirit and blessings as He did for us, but you’re not good enough that we can share a meal together! We’ll stay away from you; you, for your part, please stay away from us!
Regarding the food you choose to eat, we keep the Law while you obviously don’t. There can be no lasting fellowship between us.”
If you look back on the “essentials” James wrote, you’ll notice that they don’t imply anything about “meat sacrificed to idols” (a common misconception proffered by commentators on Acts chapter 15) in distinction to the meats allowed or disallowed to the Jews by OT Law.
And, while the prohibition of consuming blood is prominent in the OT, there is nothing there to imply that James had in mind the imposition upon Gentiles of the full dietary rules the LORD had given the Jews. The actions of Peter and the others—intimidated by the “men from James”—was nothing more or less than the wholesale rejection of the Gentiles as full Christian brothers in favor of their defective understanding of how a person is viewed as righteous before the LORD. They really believed that their actions were righteous, and necessarily so!
The Apostle Paul saw through the hypocrisy and focused on the real issue:
“ … if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.”
That error had to be stopped dead in its tracks; the purity and sufficiency of free grace was at stake at the very epicenter of Gentile Christianity.
There is no mention in the Scripture regarding what happened in Syrian Antioch following that confrontation. The Jewish legalists generally were not even slowed, as this chapter shows. But, what about Peter and the other Jewish believers? Nothing is known; Peter is mentioned only in passing in 1 Cor 1.12. After that and the mention here in Gal 2.11, there is no mention of Peter or his activities in the remainder of the NT. We have only his epistles—and they are not primarily historical accounts.
Many commentators tend to view the confrontation with Peter as happening before the Council meeting: they reason that it would have been inconsistent of Peter to do so after he and Paul openly challenged the legalists in Jerusalem. However, there are several reasons why this view is wrong:
- Paul discussed the entire matter chronologically beginning with Gal 1.11. To suddenly backtrack and make Gal 2.11-14 take place before Gal 2.1 makes no sense; the burden of proof is upon those making this claim. Relative to Paul’s point in Galatians chapter 2, it would make much more sense to have mentioned it before the record of the Council meeting in Gal 2.1-10 in his narrative, if that is really what happened. And, remember, Paul presents what is an arguably linear account beginning in chapter 1.
- The NT’s record of Peter shows that he was prone to impetuosity and inconsistency. Relative to this character trait, Peter’s action in Gal 2.11-14 could have occurred either before or after the Council meeting. It is just as difficult to reconcile his action if it occurred after the Council meeting as it would be to reconcile its occurrence after (probably) eating with Gentiles (Cornelius and his household) but before the meeting of the Council. In either case, it is inconsistent. (That sums up the entire matter, doesn't it?)
- Peter witnessed first-hand (and was the first witness of!) the power of grace to the Gentiles. The LORD saved that group of Gentiles without any hint of Law. Therefore, and as a matter of solid doctrine, Peter opposed the legalists in Jerusalem at the Council. Circumcision must not be imposed since it was contrary to free grace; that much was beyond controversy. But, eating with Gentiles—that was a very different matter that did not bear directly upon the matter of salvation by grace alone.
- While it may be possible to see in James’ bizarre list of “essentials” a harbinger of “social interaction” between Gentile and Jewish believers, it is evident that the Jerusalem group did not thoroughly “think through” the broader context of fellowship with Gentiles with its attendant minutiae. If circumcision should be denied (as it was), what about other aspects of the Law? What about the hundreds of statutes and ordinances by which the Jews had lived for centuries? Peter may have supported not imposing circumcision, but there is no indication that he or the others considered active, real fellowship with Gentiles as part of the issue—one way or the other. They had overlooked it entirely.
- There is no evidence that Peter ever visited Syrian Antioch before the mention of his visit in Gal 2.11. Acts chapter 10 is the record of his visit to Cornelius and chapter 11 is the record of his defense before the Jews for that visit. In Acts chapter 12, while Peter was in Jerusalem, Herod arrested him and was about to murder him as he had done with James, the brother of John. After Peter was miraculously delivered, the record says that “he went down from Judea to Caesarea and was spending time there.” (Act 12.19) After that, there is no mention of Peter in the book of Acts until chapter 15 (and, as noted earlier in this series, he is not mentioned in the book of Acts after chapter 15 either).
- Luke certainly would have mentioned Peter’s presence in Syrian Antioch; such an omission would be unthinkable to someone as devoted to detail as Luke. Peter’s presence there with the legalists would be noteworthy whichever “side” Peter supported. Rather, Luke mentions only that “some men came down from Judea” (Act 15.1). While it is possible that his travels to Syrian Antioch may simply not be mentioned in the NT, we would have to assume that at some point Peter moved from Caesarea to Judea, then to Syrian Antioch for him to be present at the confrontation in Gal 2.11-14.
- As I mentioned in the timeline presented earlier, there appear to have been three groups of visitors from Jerusalem to Syrian Antioch after the Council.
[The first is the return of Paul and Barnabas with Silas and Judas (Act 15.30-33); the second is the visit by Peter (Gal 2.12); the third group was “certain men from James” (Gal 2.12).]
However, at this point the account takes an ominous turn: Paul provides the stunning detail that Peter (and the other Jews, by implication) “[feared] the party of the circumcision” (Gal 2.12). It is not surprising that what follows is error and hypocrisy (since nothing good can ever come from actions rooted in fear!). In addition, the detail that “Even Barnabas…” (ὥστε καὶ Βαρναβᾶς) makes no sense if the event happened before the Council meeting; it would have been expressed simply as “Barnabas was carried away …”. Expressed with ὥστε, as it was, shows clearly Paul’s surprise and dismay that Barnabas had joined the ranks of the legalists.
[This may also have contributed to their split before the second missionary journey.]
The point here is that the Jews in Syrian Antioch came face-to-face with an issue that they hadn’t seriously considered beforehand (and one that wouldn’t occur in Jerusalem because of the natural aloofness of the Jews toward Gentiles): fellowship with Gentile Christians!
It is evident that the initial fellowship with Gentiles in Syrian Antioch immediately following the Council must have been “tentative” at best; it certainly was not rooted in love and a solid understanding of the unity of free grace. This became painfully evident when “certain men from James” dropped by for a visit; suddenly, this “fellowship” evaporated into cold legalism and isolationism once again. Relative to the Jews, the Gentile Christians must have been regarded as “second-class Christians”. The Jerusalem legalists had driven a wedge into that “fragile fellowship”. They must have been overjoyed at that point.
- The entire epistle to the Galatians is a powerful treatise on the free grace of the gospel and its implicit fulfillment of the Law, thereby rendering the latter powerless. The Apostle Paul understood the full impact of the gospel—in stark contrast to the Jerusalem “Apostle and Elders” and the Jewish delegation in Syrian Antioch at that point in time.
[The Scripture contains no subsequent details on what happened after the confrontation with Peter. However, Acts chapters 21 and 22 make it abundantly clear that the influence of the legalists continued to have a profound effect in Jerusalem. Their ranks grew considerably as they likely recruited more so-called “Jewish Christians” to their side; it eventually became the mob that would have murdered Paul had not the Roman authorities intervened.]
As a rule, the unsaved Jew hated the Lord Christ and His gospel because to them it appeared to abolish the Law—something which had been the basis of their culture for multiple centuries. Sure, while the Lord traveled around the nation and healed the sick, cast out demons, fed multitudes and performed other great works of power, they were pleased enough. But all those wonders of grace-in-action would soon be forgotten as the religious leaders of that day slowly and methodically worked to turn the people against their one true LORD—the Lord Christ, the Messiah.
Luke is careful, in Acts chapter 7, to introduce us to Saul of Tarsus, the man who watched over the garments of those who murdered Stephen. The beginning testimony of the following chapter is terse:
Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death.
As a result, the religious hierarchy could find no greater opponent of the fledgling Christianity than Saul of Tarsus:
But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison.
That all changed when the Lord called Saul of Tarsus (Act 9.1-9); the miracle of free grace turned the preeminent enemy of the Lord Christ and His people into Paul the “Apostle of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles”!
At first, the Jews didn’t quite know what to make of Paul. His command of the Tanakh was formidable—and most importantly—the Lord Christ revealed the great truths of grace to him directly. (Gal 1.17) Paul capably defeated the religious teachers of his day by proving from the Scriptures that the Lord Christ was the long-await Messiah.
It didn’t take long for the lost Jews to retaliate. Luke tells us of the first plot to murder Paul while he was still in Damascus:
When many days had elapsed, the Jews plotted together to do away with him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were also watching the gates day and night so that they might put him to death;
This pattern became nearly commonplace for the Apostle:
And when an attempt was made by both the Gentiles and the Jews with their rulers, to mistreat and to stone them …
But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having won over the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead.
And there he spent three months, and when a plot was formed against him by the Jews as he was about to set sail for Syria, he decided to return through Macedonia.
While they were seeking to kill him, a report came up to the commander of the Roman cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion.
When it was day, the Jews formed a conspiracy and bound themselves under an oath, saying that they would neither eat nor drink until they had killed Paul. There were more than forty who formed this plot.
And the chief priests and the leading men of the Jews brought charges against Paul, and they were urging him, requesting a concession against Paul, that he might have him brought to Jerusalem (at the same time, setting an ambush to kill him on the way).
For this reason some Jews seized me in the temple and tried to put me to death. … While they were seeking to kill him, a report came up to the commander of the Roman cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion.
2 Cor 11.23-37
Are they servants of Christ?—I speak as if insane—I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.
2 Tim 3.10-11
Now you followed my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, perseverance, persecutions, and sufferings, such as happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium and at Lystra; what persecutions I endured, and out of them all the Lord rescued me!
The Lord Christ did not exaggerate when He told Ananias regarding Saul:
But the Lord said to [Ananias], “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.”
We’re not told just how it was that the Lord showed Paul the Apostle what He had in mind; but the free grace given to Saul of Tarsus had so changed him that he could do nothing other than become the faithful bond-slave of that One who called him from the darkness and impotence of the Law to the glorious light of grace, regardless of the incredible personal trials he endured.