The Jerusalem Council: the Second Serious Error of the Apostles

Divine Authority Imparted

One of the immutable truths of “real” Christianity is that the Adversary attacks those who are faithful servants of the Lord Christ. And, as the NT details, these attacks come frequently from “false brethren”.

By any metric, Paul’s conversion and call to preach the gospel of free grace were stunning; it has no equal in NT history. Likewise, one would be hard-pressed to find a more faithful and dedicated evangelist, preacher and teacher in the pages of the NT than Saul of Tarsus—the one personally appointed by the Lord Christ Himself as His “Apostle of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles”.

You should be well acquainted with the account:

Act 9.3-6
As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.”

Saul was obedient to the command; three days later, the Lord commanded a faithful disciple named Ananias to find Saul and place his hands on him to heal him from the blindness which struck Saul when the Lord’s glory appeared. When Ananias hesitated and questioned the Lord’s command, the Divine response was very clear:

Act 9.15-16
But the Lord said to him, “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.”

From the very beginning the Lord chose Saul of Tarsus to be His apostle both to the Gentiles and the Jews, a ministry attended by a great deal of personal trial.

If we combine the accounts in Acts and Galatians chapter 1, we can reconstruct an approximate timeline. In the account of Saul’s calling and conversion verse Act 9.23 is significant: “When many days had elapsed …”. When did that “many days” occur? The answer to that question is found in the opening chapter of Galatians.

Remember: a very important part of Paul’s defense of the gospel of grace and his divine commission to preach to the Gentiles is found in Galatians chapter 1, verses 11 to 18. The Apostle made the vital point that the gospel he preached did not originate with man and would therefore ensure his “non-dependence” upon the Jerusalem “Apostles and Elders”, at least relative to his mandate to preach.

Note this important detail:

Gal 1.11-12, 15-17
11For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. … 15But when God, who had set me apart even from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went away to Arabia, and returned once more to Damascus.

Occurring in that “many days” of Acts chapter 9 is the three-year interval of Gal 1.18.

Understanding this is critical to understanding that Paul did not seek—or need in any way!—any permission, support, cooperation, validation or corroboration from the “Apostles and Elders” in Jerusalem.

He was sent by the Lord Christ—period, end of story!

So, as the account in Acts chapter 9 records, when Saul returned to Damascus after his “training in the gospel” in Arabia, because of his enormous success the Jews there plotted to kill him. But, Saul learned of their plot and escaped.

[One very common and careless error among modern Christians is the notion that Paul spent 3 years in Arabia receiving the gospel from the Lord; but, that isn’t what the text of Gal 1.17-18 says. While we don’t know how the time was divided, a total of 3 years was consumed by the time in Arabia followed by the time when he returned to and lived in Damascus.]

The account in Acts chapter 9 then details that he went back, briefly, to Jerusalem. (Act 9.26-28). But, just as in Damascus, the Jews in Jerusalem also violently rejected the truth of the gospel and attempted to kill Saul there.

Finally, during what would be Paul’s last trip to Jerusalem (Acts chapters 21-22), after a Jewish mob had formed and tried to kill him (yet another attempt by the Jews, and one which certainly was not the last!), Paul began his verbal defense to the Jews while under the protection of the Roman soldiers. He recounted to the crowd the facts of his remarkable conversion on the road to Damascus, his healing from blindness by Ananias and the Lord’s direct appointment of him as His apostle.

Then, Paul adds a critical detail as he recounted the “back-story” of his first visit to Jerusalem many years earlier, soon after his conversion (that is, the visit recorded in Act 9.26):

Act 22.17-21
“It happened when I returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, that I fell into a trance, and I saw Him saying to me, ‘Make haste, and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about Me.’ And I said, ‘Lord, they themselves understand that in one synagogue after another I used to imprison and beat those who believed in You. And when the blood of Your witness Stephen was being shed, I also was standing by approving, and watching out for the coats of those who were slaying him.’ And He said to me, ‘Go! For I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’”

The Jewish mob could not bear with that last statement; their hatred for Paul was palpable—after all, he was guilty of one of the major offenses that could be reckoned by a Jew: close contact with Gentiles! Of course the Lord knew this and sent Paul away.

[Really, this was just a continuation of the mission Saul began with the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles in Damascus.]

[Did you notice Saul’s response when the Lord commanded him to leave Jerusalem? The essence of his argument appears to be:

“But Lord, I’ve been where they are now. I’ve hated the Christians and did everything in my power to annihilate them; I allowed nothing to stand in my way. But, you showed your great mercy to me and I now want to preach that gospel of grace to them as well. Imagine how effective I could be as a saved Jew!”

The Lord repeated His command to depart, because He knew something that Saul didn’t: the Jews of that day would not accept the gospel. Saul’s primarily responsibilities would lay among the Gentiles, though Saul’s heart was very much inclined toward his Jewish brothers. (Rom 9.1-3)]

The importance of the fact that Saul/Paul received a divine calling can’t be overstated. Notice that Saul

  • was commanded to preach the gospel of grace,
  • which was followed by direct, divine training,
  • which was followed by at least 14 years of a very fruitful ministry among the Gentiles and Jews.

The Lord Christ told Ananias that Saul would suffer for His name. But, as Act 22.17-18 tells us, Saul did not initially expect those trials to come from the opposition of his own countrymen, the Jews!

The "point" of that opposition would soon be expressed as incipient legalism, the hellish ideology that the LORD's grace alone was insufficient to save. Since Saul preached "grace alone", he became "enemy number one" to the Jews, especially in the eyes of its leadership. His calling as the "Apostle of Jesus Christ" was under constant attack:

1 Cor 9.1-7
Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

My defense to those who examine me is this: Do we not have a right to eat and drink? Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife, even as the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or do only Barnabas and I not have a right to refrain from working? Who at any time serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat the fruit of it? Or who tends a flock and does not use the milk of the flock?

His second epistle to the Corinthians provides more evidence of the same: many in Corinth, especially those who were from the Jewish legalists, constantly denigrated his ministry and questioned his authority. [cf. 2 Cor 10.7-11,14; 2 Cor 11.12-15; 11.22-29; 12.12; 13.1-3]

Another good example of this is here:

Phi 1.15-17
Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will; the latter do it out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment.

[That last phrase is telling: a reasonable speculation is that those of whom Paul speaks were telling the Philippians something like,

“Really, do you trust a man to preach ‘truth’ to you who has run afoul of the civil authorities as many times as Paul? Look! He’s in prison now—he's a criminal! What more proof do you need? You need to trust us instead; we preach in such a way as to not get in trouble with the local authorities. That is much better for both us and you than is done by that law-breaker Paul!”]

If you carefully read through the Pauline epistles you’ll find the incursions of the Jewish legalists everywhere; they literally dogged his ministry through its entirety. This is probably the reason that Paul makes the following point in his epistles as often as he does: his authority to preach the gospel was from the Lord Christ alone!

Rom 1.1
Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God,

Rom 11.13
But I am speaking to you who are Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle of Gentiles, I magnify my ministry,

1 Cor 1.1
Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother,

1 Cor 9.1-2
Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

2 Cor 1.1
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Tim our brother…

Gal 1.1
Paul, an apostle (not sent from men nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead),

Eph 1.1
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God

Col 1.1
Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Tim our brother,

1 Tim 1.1
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus according to the commandment of God our Savior, and of Christ Jesus, who is our hope,

1 Tim 2.7
For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying) as a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

2 Tim 1.1
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, according to the promise of life in Christ Jesus,

These are the statements of Paul’s divinely-assigned credentials; absolutely nothing could ever change that. Moreover, the gospel he had been commissioned to preach was exactly that gospel he received directly from the Lord Christ while in Arabia.

Paul’s certitude of this truth could never, and would never, be shaken. It explains why the opening of the Galatian epistle is written in the stern, direct, nearly militaristic and passionate tone that it is:

Gal 2.5-6
But we did not yield in subjection to them for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel would remain with you. But from those who were of high reputation (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—well, those who were of reputation contributed nothing to me.

This is not sarcasm toward the Jerusalem Apostle and Elders: Paul is simply “telling it like it is”. They contributed literally nothing to his ministry. Paul’s was a direct, divine commission that in no way depended on those who had become the “ecclesiastical authorities” in Jerusalem.

So, we now have some of the background why, when “Some men came down from Judea …” (Act 15.1) and tried to impose the Jewish rite of circumcision on the Gentile converts that Paul “had great dissension and debate with them” (Act 15.2).

It isn’t one of the details which Luke includes in the account in Acts chapter 15, but the Apostle tells us in Gal 2.2 that “It was because of a revelation that I went up … [to Jerusalem]”.

[As I’ve detailed above from the Scripture, Paul was already, completely convinced of his “divine right” to preach the gospel that he had been preaching. Whether those in Jerusalem agreed with him was completely irrelevant because nothing they could think or do would override his divine commission.

So, it is safe to assume that when the legalists showed up in Syrian Antioch, Paul (and Barnabas) acquitted themselves well regarding the quality and content of the gospel of grace they had been preaching—and which the Lord had abundantly blessed. It appears that Paul was satisfied with his and Barnabas’ resistance to the legalists: resolving, or even considering resolving the issue in Jerusalem likely never occurred to him. At that point it would have been moot.

However, the Lord had different plans, as mentioned above:

Gal 2.1-2a
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

The Apostle Paul did not need the approval, understanding or support of Jerusalem to preach the gospel. However, as the accounts in both Acts chapter 15 and Galatians chapter 2 show, it was those in Jerusalem who needed to (re)learn what Paul already knew: the gospel of grace needs nothing else to be effectual in saving sinners, Jews and Gentiles alike. In fact, to add anything to the gospel of grace is to create “another gospel”, one that the Lord pronounced accursed along with those who preach it.

Many Christians appear to be confused by Paul’s statement:

Gal 2.2b
and I submitted to them the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but I did so in private to those who were of reputation, for fear that I might be running, or had run, in vain.

Some view this statement as an indication that perhaps Paul was wavering, that he really wasn’t as certain as he claimed to be. This view, however, is completely erroneous: Paul’s fear was the realization that if the Jerusalem legalists had their way, then the gospel-by-grace-along that he preached would be irreparably damaged by the division it would create.

While Paul’s authority was not sourced from Jerusalem, the leadership there nonetheless had the ability to wreak havoc upon early Christianity and essentially undo much of the good work which the Apostle Paul accomplished.

Something of that principle of the “destruction-of-much-good-by-a-single-sinner” is demonstrated in these OT texts:

Jos 7.1
But the sons of Israel acted unfaithfully in regard to the things under the ban, for Achan, the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, from the tribe of Judah, took some of the things under the ban, therefore the anger of the Lord burned against the sons of Israel.
[Unfaithful Achan put the entire nation under the curse.]

2 Sam 21.1
Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year; and David sought the presence of the Lord. And the Lord said, “It is for Saul and his bloody house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.
[Saul attempted to violate the covenant which Joshua made with the Gibeonites and as a result the entire nation of Israel was subjected to a three-year famine.]

Ecc 9.18
Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.

As this series shows, though the legalists were not able to reinstate the full Law upon the Gentile Christians, the damage they wrought was real and significant. They corrupted that which claims (falsely!) to be the Christian faith, and that corruption is still with us.

The modern, conservative, evangelical "church" is barely a shell of the church which began with the Lord's resurrection. All of those who are alive when the Lord Christ returns and were placed on His left during the Judgment of the Nations (Mat 25.31-33) will object. Their objection? "Lord, we are Christians and have served You!" to which the Lord Christ will respond "Depart into the eternal fire, accursed ones." (Mat 7.23; 25.41)
]

Keeping the gospel of grace completely unfettered from the legalists and the dead requirements of Law became Paul’s top priority in this matter.

The fact that this fight had to be waged in Jerusalem in the first place is a sad commentary on how spectacularly careless the Jerusalem “Apostles and Elders” had become.

Remember, this is the testimony of the Holy Spirit through inspired Scripture:

Gal 2.4
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.

Gal 2.12a
For prior to the coming of certain men from James

The leadership of Jerusalem had become infected with the virus of legalism; they obviously did not recognize the gravity of the situation.

As a result, the Lord sent Paul to them to correct them. It is as true that this can't be over-emphasized as it is also true that it is theological suicide to ignore it.

 

But, as the follow-on account of Peter’s hypocrisy in Gal 2.11-14 and Acts chapters 21 and 22 shows, the (limited!) lessons of the Council were soon forgotten, and the leadership once again fell subject to the expectations and demands of the Jewish legalists.

Moreover, there is no evidence in the NT that that situation ever improved. Rather, the opposite is true, as a later chapter in this series detail.

 

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