In the Christian faith, particular events, schedules, persons and conversations matter. They matter because we are talking about God’s intervention in history. The gospel is not a detached and abstracted affair—a set of timeless truths in the heavenlies. Particularity matters a great deal.
Then fourteen years after I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, and took Titus with me also. And I went up by revelation, and communicated unto them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to them which were of reputation, lest by any means I should run, or had run, in vain. But neither Titus, who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised: And that because of false brethren nawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage: To whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the gospel might continue with you
Paul has been very emphatic about how many times he has been to Jerusalem (1:20). This visit to Jerusalem described in the second chapter of Galatians must therefore be the famine relief visit described in Acts 11. Let us consider how the two visits line up.
And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch. And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be great dearth throughout all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar. Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea: Which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul (Acts 11:27-30).
First, St. Paul identifies the two visits. Second, both visits were in response to a revelation (Gal. 2:2; Acts 11:28). Third, both visits were for the sake of the poor (Acts 11:29; Gal. 2:10). Fourth, Paul took Barnabas on both trips (Acts 11:30; Gal. 2:1). Fifth, Paul does not mention the decision of the Jerusalem council in the book of Galatians, which would be inexplicable if the council had already decided in his favor. What do we want? Egg in our beer?
The apostle Paul tells us something about the Acts 11 visit that we do not learn from Acts, which is that Paul met with the leaders (those who were “of reputation”) in the Jerusalem church (and he did so privately) in order to set out his gospel before them, the gospel he preached to the Gentiles. He did this because he was afraid that the Jerusalem leaders might undo his work, and all his labors would have been in vain. Fortunately, this did not happen—the leaders of the Jerusalem church stood fast in the standards of grace.
Titus was the test case. He was a Greek and therefore not circumcised. He accompanied Paul and Barnabas on this trip, and he was received as a brother (just the way he was) by the Jerusalem leaders. And this was not because they did not notice he was Greek. Certain men had demanded that Titus be compelled to accept circumcision, Paul’s party refused to accommodate them, even for a minute, and the Jerusalem leaders sided with Paul.
Now what are we to make of this category, “false brethren”? These men were not outliers in the Jerusalem church. Their baptismal papers were in good order, they had access to the inner councils of the apostles and elders, and were no doubt included elders among them. Yet Paul calls them false brothers. The objectivity of the covenant means that these men were objectively brothers, in the same sense that an unfaithful husband is truly a husband. But an unfaithful husband is not a true husband in that he is false to his vows and his covenant obligations. It is the same kind of thing here. If a betrayed wife says to her husband, “You are a false husband” and he responds with, “That means that I had no true vows to break,” this means he is just compounding his wickedness. We all know how to distinguish the words true and false easily and readily—until we get to the covenant of grace. But we must learn to grow up.
Paul knew how to bend for the sake of the weaker brother. He knew how to teach us how to bend for the sake of the weaker brother. We are not to stumble one another over debatable issues (Rom. 14; 1 Cor. 8). At the same time, he could be the most inflexible of men when the principles central to the gospel were at stake (Col. 2:16). Further, he required the same kind of flexibility and inflexibility from us, as we imitate him. Is the gospel under assault in our day? Always and everywhere. What are we to do? Stand fast.