Galatians: Paul Accepted by the Apostles

Today’s reading is Galatians 2:1-10Open Link in New Window

Here is today’s reflection by Lucy Bush.

This separate video will be available from 2pm Sunday.

If you are anything like me then reading this passage in Galatians 2Open Link in New Window is quite confusing. You’ll be relieved to hear, as I was, that this is not surprising because the translators have done their best to make sense of it, but in the original Greek, Paul writes in incomplete and confused sentences. It’s important to note this because it shows that he was passionate about his writing. Sort of like when we might write an email in the heat of frustration (I’m sure none of you ever do this) and then when you come back to it you notice a load of typos. That’s similar to what we have here!

What is actually happening here?—let me set the scene for you. As Imogen noted a few weeks ago in her introduction to the letter, Galatians is a letter written by Paul to some churches he had set up in Galatia. However, in his absence they had been listening to some false teachers, who told them they needed to be circumcised, and told them that Paul was a false apostle—that he shouldn’t really be trusted.

In this passage we’re looking at today, Paul is writing to the Galatians and recalling a prior visit to Jerusalem. He is doing this to prove to them that he can be trusted as a sound teacher, and to remind them that there is no need for circumcision. And I wonder if anyone can see in the first couple of verses why Paul went to Jerusalem? Have a look in your Bible and I’ll come back to it in a minute.

Why did Paul go to Jerusalem?

So, Paul is in Jerusalem and he’s brought Titus with him. He’s come to see the three leaders of the church there—Peter (also called Cephas in this passage), James and John. These are likely leaders that the false teachers with the churches in Galatia would respect, so you can see Paul is appealing to the Galatians about his authority and trustworthiness, by writing to them with a story about his encounter with Peter, James and John. He requests a private meeting with these three leaders, but some others sneak in, who want to convince Titus that he should be circumcised.

Titus is a gentile convert (like the Galatians) so has not been circumcised. And we read in this passage that the apostles aren’t convinced by the false teachers, so Titus doesn’t get circumcised.

Now back to the question I asked—why did Paul go to Jerusalem? I’m sure you found in v2… because of a revelation from God! While Paul is appealing to the Galatians and telling them that Peter, James and John agreed with his stance on circumcision, he wants them to know that at the same time he isn’t beholden by their ruling. He is desperate to stay on good terms with them, but it is God who called him to Jerusalem in the first place. And as Gaby pointed out last week, the gospel that Paul proclaimed hasn’t been passed onto him by humans, but by Jesus Christ himself on the road to Damascus (Galatians 1.12Open Link in New Window). Paul is wanting the Galatians to know that not only do the Jerusalem church leaders agree with him, but Paul’s very authority to teach comes from the Lord Almighty. He is proving that the churches in Galatia should listen to Paul and not to these false teachers.

Now that we’ve made sense of what was happening in this passage, I’d like to draw out two main points. The first is about unity, and the second is about grace.

Have a think about—how do you define ‘unity’, and how do you define ‘grace’?

How do you define ‘Unity”?

In this passage, we see unity worked out in a number of ways. Firstly, Paul himself is clearly committed to unity. He goes to Jerusalem to meet with the church leaders. Even though he knows that he has been sent by God, he wants to stay in good standing with the other apostles—he wants to stay unified. We’ll see next week that it certainly wasn’t always easy, but Paul is committed to them.

We also see that the apostles—Peter, James and John are also committed to unity. They agree to meet with Paul. We see the pressure from these Jewish Christians saying that Paul should be circumcising new believers, like those who pushed into their meeting in v4 (spies). Peter, James and John would have these requests on the one side. But they were able to see past this, recognise God at work in Paul and Barnabas too, and allow the gentiles, the new believers to not be circumcised. And they even agreed to minister amicably alongside one another to different groups—Peter to the Jews and Paul to the gentiles (v7).

We see here at the very start of the Christian movement, that they made space for people with a different spiritual identity—those who worshipped differently. And they also made space for different cultural identities, which requires humility. Some were Jews by birth who had encountered Jesus, others were gentiles, i.e. not Jewish! People like you and me today. Sometimes in the western church we think almost that we were here first—when actually before this point, the gentiles—people like you and me – weren’t welcome. How does that change our view of people around us today?

Something that stuck out to me as I was preparing this talk is how inclusive Paul’s insistence against circumcision was. And I’m mainly thinking about women here. Because if these false teachers taught that circumcision was the marker by which you are saved, women are excluded from making a choice of their own. Instead, they continue to be bound by the men in their life and judged either “in” or “out” of the faith by the actions of the men around them – most likely their father or husband. I don’t know if Paul was thinking of gentile women at the time of writing, but he goes on in chapter 3 of this letter to say that famous verse ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ This plea for the Galatian churches to avoid the false teachings about circumcision is a radical unifying statement for all followers of Jesus Christ.

And finally on unity—in verse 10 they agree to look out for the poor. It’s commonly agreed among scholars that this is referring to the church in Jerusalem which was impoverished for a variety of reasons. And indeed Paul went on to take collections from his gentile churches to send back to the church in Jerusalem—remembering each other not just spiritually, but practically acting as a unified body and sharing their resources.

How do you define ‘Grace’?

The false teachers were trying to encourage the new Christians in Galatia to be circumcised, because they didn’t fully understand grace. They were still trying to live as though they needed to earn their salvation—like grace could be earned by being circumcised and living to the Jewish law. And this is why Paul was so passionate about this—as we see in his dodgy grammar. Because Paul turned his life around and away from this very religious stuff that these false teachers were now advocating.

Gaby spoke to us last week about our how our lives have been changed by knowing Jesus—and Paul’s life had been radically changed from that of a very law-observant, zealous Jew! If following the Jewish rules had been the route to salvation, then Paul would have been on that path. But instead, Jesus met him on the Damascus road and turned his life around—turned him away from his zealous pursuit of the law and towards grace that cannot be earned. This is why he is so passionate here.

One commentator wrote of the lure of pride that we humans have—we are seduced by the idea of saving ourselves, of controlling our own salvation. We want to make sure that we are doing something we want an outward attainment of our salvation. But that is not how grace works. This commentator suggests that Christians should continually hold up their views for scrutiny among other Christians to make sure we don’t fall into this trap. I’d encourage us to ask questions about this and to share with one another as we pray together, and in our midweek small groups, to ensure we’re all following Jesus’ gospel, not another one that tells us that if we work hard enough, we will be saved.

In summary, we have here a passionate letter from Paul to the Galatians, telling them about an encounter with the apostles in Jerusalem. He tells them this to show that he has authority in what he teaches, and to highlight that his authority is from God. Paul insists that the new gentile believers, like the Galatians, don’t need to be circumcised and that belief in Jesus Christ is sufficient for their salvation. Paul and the other apostles show their commitment to unity within the church despite their differences, and the conclusion that they reach together about new believers not needing to be circumcised is a reminder that we cannot earn salvation, but we are instead recipients of God’s grace.

Questions for small groups:

  1. Do we sometimes think we can earn our salvation by doing things? What sort of things?
  2. Why do you think Paul uses the word ‘enslave’ in verse 4? How do you feel about this?
  3. What might it look like to embrace different spiritual identities, as the apostles did?
  4. What experience do you have of embracing different cultural identities? Is there more the Church could be doing to embrace different people?
  5. Have you considered being unified with all of the Church? What might it look like to act practically on this?

There will be a video version of the service.

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