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.
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.