This article is the first in a series by Brother Michael Edgecombe which will explore the background and the serious  issues that the Apostle Paul had to answer that had arisen among the ecclesias in Galatia, recently established  by him and Silas

Shocked. Angry. Amazed and indignant.  Anxious and afraid. Betrayed and hurt. Paul’s  first epistle, dashed off in a great hurry to  the ecclesias of Galatia, is charged with emotion.  By turns he challenges, denounces, curses, vows,  expostulates, pleads, confronts, charges, warns and  exhorts. What on earth had happened to upset the  apostle so profoundly?

Paul’s new program

Paul had come to the Roman province of Galatia  on his first missionary journey, with Barnabas,  about AD 48. Actually, Asia had not even been on  their itinerary. But when Sergius Paulus, a member  of the Roman elite, the representative of the Senate  and People of Rome and the emperor’s personal  delegate, had himself asked to hear the gospel: and  when it had been preached to him, he had believed  it. Saul read the unexpected invitation, and its  equally unexpected outcome, as a clear signal that  the time had come to step forward and fulfil the  personal commission he had received in Damascus  by taking the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15–16;  22:12–16). He adopted the new name ‘Paul’ (Acts  13:9), and sailed for Perga on the mainland.

Not everybody agreed with this bold new program.  John the Levite, a young cousin of Barnabas  who had been travelling with them as their attendant,  most definitely disagreed. He “departing from  them, returned”, not to Antioch, but “to Jerusalem”,  Jewish heartland (Acts 13:13). The word signifies a  dramatic and emphatic departure. We might picture  frowning faces, heated words, hands banging  on the table, a slamming door. Disappointed but  undaunted, Paul and Barnabas pressed on.

The great proposition

In Antioch Paul delivered his first recorded speech  (13:14–41). Beginning with the history of Israel, he  worked his way through to the great centrepiece of  God’s work, the death and resurrection of the Christ.  “Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren,”  he finished, “that through this man is preached unto  you the forgiveness of sins: and by him all that believe  are justified from all things, from which ye could not  be justified by the law of Moses” (v38–39).

Please, find a way to highlight these words in  your Bible! They are one of Scripture’s great declarations,  and highly relevant to Paul’s letter to the  Galatians. For this, the climax of his presentation,  is the very proposition denied so vehemently by  the Judaists who later came to this same area, and  affirmed even more fiercely by Paul in his letter to  these same people. The whole of Galatians hangs  on these two verses from the book of Acts.

The following Sabbath almost the whole population  of Antioch came to hear this extraordinary  new message, and there was standing room only in  the synagogue. Far from thrilled, however, the leaders  of the Jewish community were moved with envy,  and argued aggressively with Paul, “contradicting  and blaspheming” (v45).

But the two preachers were not intimidated.  “Paul and Barnabas waxed bold, and said, It was  necessary that the word of God should first have  been spoken to you: but seeing ye put it from you,  and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life,  lo, we turn to the Gentiles. For so hath the Lord  commanded us, saying, I have set thee to be a light  of the Gentiles, that thou shouldest be for salvation  unto the ends of the earth” (v46–47).

The focus – Gentiles

After taking the same saving message to Iconium,  Lystra and Derbe, Paul and Barnabas returned  to Antioch: and “when they were come, and had  gathered the ecclesia together, they rehearsed  all that God had done with them, and how he  had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles”  (14:27).

The Galatians were not the first Gentiles  to come to Christ. The “door of faith” had first  been unlocked by Peter, at God’s direction, when  Cornelius, a Roman centurion and his household,  had been converted about ten years before (Acts  10). Many Gentiles had joined the ecclesia in  Antioch, then one of the world’s largest and most  cosmopolitan cities.

But the Galatians were the first Gentiles to be  consciously targeted by Paul on his mission to take  the gospel from Jerusalem “unto the uttermost part  of the earth”, and ultimately, to Rome. His policy  would always be “to the Jew first, and also to the  Greek”. Coming to any city for the first time, he  would always attend the synagogue before visiting  the agora. But it was now completely clear to him  that the Gentiles were to be the focus of his mission:  and from that point in time he dedicated himself to  the great challenge of spreading the name of Christ  to every city in the Mediterranean world.

Are we going to take up Paul’s work today?  Of the 224 cities in the Asia–Pacific region with  a population of 1,000,000 or more, the gospel has  a footprint in 38. That’s a great start – and a great  opportunity for all of us. 1,965 years after Paul’s first  missionary journey, we must build on the foundations  already laid by previous generations, and take  the gospel even further.

Early opposition from the Judaists

The story of what had happened in Cyprus and  Galatia filtered through to Jerusalem. Perhaps Mark  had a hand in that, but there was plenty of traffic  between Jerusalem and the Jewish communities  dispersed across the Empire, and news travelled  fast. Those opposed to Paul’s program were greatly  alarmed by what they heard, and decided on a  systematic campaign to head off the looming catastrophe  – as they saw it.

It was not the first time that conservative members  of the Jerusalem ecclesia had reacted in this  way. When Peter had preached to Cornelius and  his household, brethren in Jerusalem had objected,  “Thou wentest in to men uncircumcised, and didst  eat with them” (Acts 11:3). Peter could stave off  their objections only by defending his mission as  from God, and appealing to the witnesses he had  taken with him.

Some time later the same people became  concerned about reports of what was going on in  Antioch, and Barnabas was sent on an exploratory  probe, “as far as Antioch”. “When he came, and had  seen the grace of God, [he] was glad, and exhorted  them all, that with purpose of heart they would  cleave unto the Lord. For he was a good man, and  full of the Holy Spirit and of faith: and much people  was added unto the Lord” (Acts 11:23–24). Again  the objections were met.

Paul visits Jerusalem with Titus

But opposition continued. About three years before  Paul’s first missionary journey, Jerusalem had  experienced a serious famine (AD 45–47): and the  ecclesia at Antioch had sent Barnabas and Paul with  food for the saints there (Acts 11:27–30). Paul had  taken Titus, a Greek convert, and not circumcised  (Gal 2:1). Paul might have guessed what effect this  would have, and one suspects that it was a deliberate  tactic on his part to draw latent opposition into the  open. If so he was entirely successful!

Paul’s intention was to communicate the gospel  that he preached, and its practical implications for  discipleship and fellowship, “privately to them which  were of reputation” (Gal 2:2). There were brethren in  Jerusalem that he trusted and respected. He did not  want them to be troubled or distracted by misrepresentations.  He wanted to ensure that they heard what  he believed and taught at firsthand, directly from him.  He did not want to “run in vain”, to expend enormous  energy on preaching the gospel and making converts  only to find his work undermined by misunderstanding  – something that did in fact cause trouble later on  (Acts 21:21). It was a very sensible approach.

There were others in Jerusalem, however, for  whom the fellowship of an uncircumcised Greek  was a major stumbling-block. Paul was confronted  by people that he attacked as “false brethren unawares  brought in, who came in privily to spy out our  liberty which we have in Christ Jesus” (Gal 2:3-4).  These were Judaists, believers in Jesus Christ as  Prophet and King, but also strict adherents of the  Law of Moses. A case can be made that there was a deliberate attempt to wreck ‘The Way’ from within  by slipping pretenders, ‘pseudo-brethren’, into the  ecclesia. No doubt others were sincere: but they  were all seriously mistaken.

Paul absolutely refused to contemplate circumcising  Titus, not even for a moment. “To whom we  gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour; that  the truth of the gospel might continue with you”  (Gal 2:5). Titus became the test case for the truth  of the gospel and liberty in Christ: and the Judaists  could make no headway.

But the leaders of the ecclesia, “those who  seemed to be somewhat” (Gal 2:6-7), recognised  that the gospel to the Gentiles, “the gospel of the  uncircumcision,” was Paul’s rightful task, just as  Peter was recognised as the rightful leader of the  apostles in the continuing work of preaching to the  Jewish people, “the circumcision”. On behalf of the  ecclesia James, Peter and John extended to Paul and  Barnabas “the right hand of fellowship”, then as now  the symbol of perfect fellowship in faith and life:  and they parted on excellent terms.

The Judaists come to Antioch

The Judaists were ‘not done’, however. They were  deeply concerned that the Law of Moses was being  downplayed and sidelined; Jewish exclusiveness was  being broken down, and Jewish privilege discounted;  the distinctives of the Law such as the Sabbath,  circumcision and food taboos were being erased; the  moral code preserved by the Law of Moses was being  endangered, especially sexual morality; worship  of God in the Temple was being abandoned; and  one thousand years of history and “the traditions  of the fathers” were being ignored. While they had  lost the first round, they were determined to ‘win  the war’: and when it became clear that Paul was  set on taking his gospel far and wide, they resolved  to carry the battle into his home territory.

A party of Judaists arrived in Antioch about AD  49, purporting to come “from James”, the brother of  the Lord, the acknowledged leader of the Jerusalem  ecclesia, a devout man, and highly reputable, even  among non-Christian Jews. As it turns out, James  later disavowed the Judaist mission, stating very  definitely that neither he nor the ecclesia had ever  authorised their work (Acts 15:24). But nobody in  Antioch could know that at the time.

The first target of the Judaists was the Jewish  community. They insisted that Jews must hold  to their traditions, especially the food laws (Gal  2:11–13). If that meant that fellowship between  Jew and Gentile broke down – for even among first  century Christians, fellowship was built on shared  meals – well, too bad. Paul was astonished when  Peter, now in Antioch, and other Jews – people he  knew for a fact did not agree with this teaching  – were intimidated by the Judaists, and broke off  their fellowship with Gentile believers: perhaps not  formally, but certainly in practice. With the Jewish  community on the back foot, the Judaists moved  against the Gentiles, affirming that “except ye be  circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot  be saved” (Acts 15:1).

When Barnabas was swayed by the pressure it  was ‘the last straw’ for Paul, who did not ‘buy’ the  Judaist line, and saw the capitulation of Peter and  others as ‘out and out hypocrisy’. In front of the  whole ecclesia, he confronted Peter, “if thou, being  a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not  as do the Jews” – as indeed Peter had lived, prior to  the arrival of the Judaists: and that had been good  enough for him then! – “why compellest thou the  Gentiles to live as do the Jews?” (Gal 2:14).

Peter had to be reminded of the principles of  justification by faith, and their implications for life  in Christ, all over again. It might have been one  of his greatest failures. Instead, it became one of  his greatest moments, and a testimony to the essential  humility of that wonderful disciple. To his  great credit he accepted the well-deserved rebuke,  and stood shoulder to shoulder with his “beloved  brother Paul” in the debate that followed.

Wisdom in Jerusalem

Barnabas, too, was confirmed in his faith: and they  “had no small dissension and disputation with them”  (Acts 15:2). All three men were highly competent,  and Paul in particular was a skilled debater. Even  so, it became clear that peace would not return to  Antioch until Jerusalem itself came out unambiguously  on the side of justification by faith, freedom in  Christ, and untrammelled fellowship between weak  and strong, Jew and Gentile. The ecclesia therefore  “determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain  other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the  apostles and elders about this question” (Acts 15:2).

The Jerusalem Council was the result. After the  debate had developed some real momentum in that  city also, the apostles and elders came together to settle it once and for all. Peter spoke; Barnabas and  Paul spoke; James spoke. It was accepted that while  Gentile believers should be asked to understand and  accommodate Jewish scruples, circumcision and the  keeping of the Law were not required. Only four  “necessary things” were identified: abstinence from  idolatrous worship, from things strangled, from  blood, and from sexual immorality.

It is sometimes said that Paul was unhappy  with the outcome. That is untrue. The decree of the  Council vindicated his position, and established  for all time the principle of freedom in Christ. For  his part, Paul accepted the wisdom of the Council  in ruling that the consciences of Jewish brethren  should be lovingly and sensitively accommodated,  a principle that he expounded at length in  1 Corinthians 8–10 and Romans 14–15. It continues  to be a core principle for ecclesial life today, and  an important expression of what it means to “walk  in love, as Christ also hath loved us”.