Acts 15:1-4 & Galatians 2:1-10 by Robert Dean
After we're saved, do we have to work our heads off and follow a lot of rules to please God? This was the burning question being debated in the early church. Many of the Jewish-background believers demanded that new Gentile converts be circumcised and follow the Mosaic Law. Paul stood his ground, keeping his eye on the central issue of grace for both salvation and spiritual life. Follow the chronology of Paul's trips to Jerusalem and see the development of this issue as it is resolved. Understand the difference between legalists performing certain rituals to give them special standing in God's eyes and legitimate practices that lead to spiritual growth.

Grace vs Legalism. Acts 15:1-4, Galatians 2:1-10


The focus of this chapter deals with grace and legalism. As much as we discuss grace and legalism we discover that there are a lot of people who still get confused over what grace means and what legalism means. First of all what they are not. Grace is not permissiveness; grace is not antinomianism; grace doesn't mean that it is open to do that which is wrong, to justify it or rationalize it in some way simply because Christ already paid the penalty for sin, or that we can confess it later and be forgiven by God. There are still consequences to sin. Sin is still wrong. We are prohibited in Scripture from many things and we are commanded to do many things. Emphasizing the prohibitions and the commands in Scripture, especially those that apply to believers, is not legalism. There are a lot of Christians who have been heard over the years who have said if they were someone who emphasizes that Scripture says this is right and this is wrong, we should not do these things, we should do these, that they have been branded legalists. But that is not legalism. Legalism is claiming that God's blessing is caused by whether we do or do not do certain things. That's it in a nutshell. The issue in the Christian life is not about seeing what we can get away with, which is an abuse of grace. 

On the other side, as spiritual infants often take advantage of God's grace and abuse God's grace. That is not right but it is normal, just like children who take advantage of their parents' absence or their parents' lack of being observant and will disobey them. But that doesn't make it right, that is typical of immaturity. Maturity recognizes that they might be able to get away with something which is the wrong thing but they are not going to do it simply because it is the wrong thing. That is the difference between grace and legalism. Grace is that God does not take into account our failures as the basis for our salvation. He gives blessings to us, not on the basis of who we are or what we have done but on the basis of His character and what Jesus Christ did on the cross. Grace means that God is not conditioning His free gift of salvation or the free gifts of other things to us on the basis of our personal righteousness. 

On the other hand, God has given us all of our blessings at the instant of salvation but if we don't demonstrate the maturity and the capacity to handle blessings then God may not distribute those blessings. But the cause of receiving blessing from God is not whether or not we follow certain rituals, certain procedures, or follow a certain code such as the Old Testament Law of Moses. 

This is a major issue that the early church had to resolve. It has already occurred, as we have seen, with what are we going to do with the Gentiles? In Acts chapter fifteen the focus is on this. This is when things come to one of the significant decision points on how to handle this issue. It is usually referred to as the Jerusalem Council, but it is not a formal council such as church councils were in later centuries, it was more of an informal gathering of all of the leaders and pastors in the church at Jerusalem where they could debate, discuss and argue about these issues and then come to a conclusion. It is important to understand that that was their way of making this decision. How do you resolve a theological conflict? Do you go to God prayer, mediate quietly in your closet, waiting for a little liver quiver for God to tell you what to do? Or do you exegete the Scriptures, analyze the Scriptures, hash it out, debate, and come to a conclusion that everyone can agree on.

So Paul returns from his second missionary journey. They went to Antioch first. We read in this chapter that they are going to make their way down through Phoenicia and Sidon and Tyre, encouraging the Gentile congregations along the way with what has happened on their first missionary journey. 

Paul would have been saved in 35 AD, within two years of the death of Christ on the cross. A problem we have in putting this chronology together is in Galatians 2:1 where Paul says, "Then after an interval of fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along also." The question is: When did this trip to Jerusalem occur? He doesn't say well for the send time or for the third time I went to Jerusalem. So we don't know. He doesn't pin that to anything else other than his conversion. It is fourteen years after his conversion.

The way in which chronology was counted in the ancient world is very different from the way that we count numbers today. We look at things and say that if a person has done something for three years we either take it as a full three years or we take it as pretty much most of the first year, second year and most of the third year. We are fairly literal in that. Whereas in the ancient world the way they counted was different. For example, as we studied in Kings, in both the northern kingdom and the southern kingdom at different times they way they counted the years of the king's reign was different. Many times they used what was called the accession year method of counting. Let's say the king becomes king on December 31st of 2012. Well 2012 becomes the first year of his reign, even though he was on the throne for only one day. It is the first year. And let's say he died on January the second 2020. Well 2020 would be the ninth year. Even though he only reigned for one day of that year that would be counted as the ninth year. Any part of the year no matter how tiny it might be would be counted as a full year.

So when we look at the date of AD 35 Paul is saved, and he says fourteen years later, we count 35 as the first year and 47 would be the last year. Therefore some time in 47 would be the trip that he is talking about in Galatians 2:1. The Jerusalem Council is generally seen to be around 49; nobody wants to put it in 50. But if we put it any earlier then it is not the visit he talks about in Galatians 2:1.

One problem is that many of the people who try to work out the chronologies take a 30 AD crucifixion date. So then there is a problem because they have a chronology that doesn't work for a 33 date.

Why is this important? It is important because the Bible claims to be writing true things about what happened and even the chronological numbers are from the breathed-out Word of God. They are inspired and thus inerrant. If the Word of God took place in space-time history then we ought to be able to resolve these conundrums satisfactorily, based on the way in which people things and used numbers at that particular time.

The basic issue was that there had been a number of Jews, especially Pharisee background Jews, who had now trusted in Jesus as the Messiah. As they bring their Law-based, rigid legalism to Christianity now that Gentiles want to be saved they still think of Christianity as a Jewish based and Mosaic Law based development in the history of God's relationship to Israel. They were teaching that unless a person was circumcised according to the custom of Moses he couldn't be saved. So this was the first of two types of legalism. First there is salvation legalism, and this is the idea that a person, in order to be saved, has to do something more than simply believe in Jesus and His death of the cross for salvation. In this case it was to believe and be circumcised (males). Later on it was to have infant baptism or sprinkling or some external form of dedication. Many different things have been added in order to be saved. Second, in spiritual life legalism they may believe that you are saved by faith alone in Christ alone but if you are going to receive any of God's blessings then you have to follow a certain ritual, maybe follow the Mosaic Law, and in their case here it was to be circumcised. 

Remember that circumcision was a sign of the Abrahamic covenant. But at this time it was associated with the Mosaic Law and it was also emphasized because it was a sign of patriotism and loyalty to being a Jew.

In Acts chapter eleven there was a situation where Paul was invited back to Antioch by Barnabas (v.19) and after a period of time in the church there, there was a prophet, Agabus (v. 28)—early first century spiritual gift of prophecy—who "stood up and {began} to indicate by the Spirit that there would certainly be a great famine all over the world. And this took place in the {reign} of Claudius." So then the disciples determined to send relief to brethren dwelling in Judea. This is the congregation coming together and saying they were going to send financial aid to the church in Jerusalem because the famine is really hurting them. They took the money and sent it by the hands of Barnabas and Saul. This is referred to in chronological discussions as the famine visit. This is the second visit that Paul makes to Jerusalem. It is after this that Paul goes on his first missionary journey, and after the first missionary journey in the fall of 49 they had the Jerusalem Council.

The issue is: What is Paul describing in Galatians 2:1-10? Why this is important is because here Paul describes a journey to Jerusalem where the issues that are addressed are very similar to the issues addressed in Acts 15 where they are dealing with Gentiles and whether or not they should be required to be circumcised in order to be saved. Galatians deals with the error of adding obedience to the Law as a part of justification. It leads to the conclusion that we are not justified by the works of the Law but by faith alone. Galatians 2:16 NASB "nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified." So the point he is making here is related to justification. In chapter three he is going to start dealing with the issue of sanctification, and that is where he makes the statement: [3] "Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?"—human ability, observing the Law, ritual, morality, etc.

In Acts 15 we see that even with the apostles they are developing (not changing their doctrine) their clarity and focus and understanding of doctrine. Too often people get a quasi-mystical idea of how the apostles came to understand truth. There were perhaps times of revelation where they were given certain information but generally they sat under a special kind of ministry under God the Holly Spirit. They studied the Word and had to figure it out through study of the Word. They didn't just sit down and instantly come to the right answer. We see that displayed in this process.

This was a major shift from the way that they had always been brought up and had always thought, and they are grappling with it to come to an understanding of the church age and the relation of Jews and Gentiles in the church. 

Galatians 2:1 NASB "Then after an interval of fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along also." There is no mention in acts of Titus going with Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem. This doesn't mean Acts is wrong, it just means that Luke didn't think that was relevant to his story line, what he was trying to communicate. But Luke left a lot of things out. Whenever anybody writes there are a lot of things that can be said and there are a lot of things that need to be left out. Not everything is necessary in order to make your point and argue for your basic thesis. 

Galatians 2:2 NASB "It was because of a revelation that I went up; 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." Notice here that he said "because of revelation." That means that he goes up privately, it is not a public thing. In Acts 15 it was public. The word "submitted" is an aorist tense, which means it is past tense. "I preach" is a present tense verb, indicating that he is still preaching. "I communicated to them in the past the gospel that I continue to preach"—faith alone in Christ alone. He communicated privately "to those who were of reputation," i.e. to those in the church; it is a private meeting to see if they are in agreement.

There are primary ways in which this is interpreted in terms of understanding and relating it to Paul's trips in Acts. There is one group that equates Acts 15 to Galatians 2:1-10. The other primary group sees Acts 11:30 as the visit stated in Galatians chapter two.

In Acts 15 Paul and Barnabas are sent as part of an official delegation from the church at Antioch to Jerusalem in order to resolve this dispute that has occurred in the Antioch church by these men who have come up from Judea. In Galatians 2, however, Paul says he is prompted in going to have this private visit by revelation. He is going to deal with the issue of the role of the Gentiles privately. The reason he is going to deal with it privately is because of revelation. It is dealt with publicly by official delegation in Acts 15. That is the second reason that Acts 11:30 fits better. The conference in Acts 15 was a public meeting that involved lengthy discussions which were all out in the open.

A third reason here is that if Galatians chapter two is talking about the Acts 15 visit then it never mentions the conclusion in the Acts 15 council. The conclusion reached in the Jerusalem Council was that it was fine for Gentiles join the church, they didn't have to pass any inspection related to the Mosaic Law; they only need to stay away from things sacrificed to idols, from fornication, which everybody understood they needed to do anyway.

Fourth, the conclusion of the Acts 15 visit was to tell the Gentiles they didn't have to follow the Law. They had to stay away from things sacrificed to idols, eating bloody meat, and sexual immorality. Whereas in Galatians 2:10 the conclusion is: "{They} only {asked} us to remember the poor—the very thing I also was eager to do." So their conclusion as to what they were expecting Gentiles to do is very different in Galatians 2:10 from what was decided upon in Acts 15.

When Paul goes to Jerusalem with Barnabas in the famine visit he knows that he is going to have a private meeting with the leaders there, and so in order to clarify the issue he takes Titus along with him as a test case. The reason is because Titus is a Gentile and has not been circumcised. So the issue: Will the apostles in Jerusalem accept Titus on a full footing or are they going to require that he be circumcised. If everybody in Jerusalem gets up set with Titus because he hasn't been circumcised then that would create major divisions and problems within the infant church. Paul wanted to deal with this in private so that there wouldn't be a huge public explosion.

Galatians 2:3 NASB "But not even Titus, who was with me, though he was a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised." The Acts 11:30 visit comes after Peter taking the message to Cornelius in Acts chapter ten. At that point in Acts 11 their understanding is that Gentiles have equal access to be a member of the new church and they are not emphasizing the Mosaic Law. They have an understanding of grace. So the leaders in Jerusalem passed the grace test and they are not requiring Titus to be circumcised. 

Galatians 2:4 NASB "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. [5] But we did not yield in subjection to them for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel would remain with you." He stood the ground for grace.

Galatians 2:6 NASB "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. [7] But on the contrary, seeing that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter {had been} to the circumcised [8] (for He who effectually worked for Peter in {his} apostleship to the circumcised effectually worked for me also to the Gentiles)." It is in these verses that we come to understand that there is a division of focus between Paul and Peter, that Peter was primarily the apostle to the Jews. But that didn't mean he didn't visit the Gentiles. He was God's choice to open the door to the Gentiles by taking the gospel to Cornelius. In the same way, just because Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles it didn't mean that Paul was wrong if he took the gospel to the Jew first and then to the Gentiles. Paul wasn't prohibited in evangelizing Jews any more than Peter was being prohibited from evangelizing Gentiles. It is just that that wasn't their primary areas of focus. 

Galatians 2:9 NASB "and recognizing the grace that had been given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, so that we {might} {go} to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised." This precedes the first missionary journey. [10] "{They} only {asked} us to remember the poor—the very thing I also was eager to do."

We will go on and look at the next section in Galatians because it shows us the confusion that went on in the early church, even with someone like Peter. After the famine visit to Jerusalem Peter subsequently came to Antioch and there was another confrontation. So in this chain of events there was the first little confrontation between God and Peter: the sheet from heaven incident. Peter finally got the point and took the gospel to the Gentiles in Acts 10. In Acts 11 he gave a report back to the church at Jerusalem and everything seemed to be fine. Then we get to the famine visit at the end of the chapter and though Acts 11 doesn't go into it Galatians 2:1-10 does, and there is another discussion about the role of Gentiles in the church. Then there is another confrontation that occurs back in Antioch and this is described in Galatians 2:11-15.

Galatians 2:11 NASB "But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned." So we find out that Peter has been vacillating and has been hypocritical about how he has treated Jews and Gentiles. Paul explains.

Galatians 2:12 NASB "For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he {began} to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision." So these who are coming up from James are stated here to be "of the circumcision." They were the Jews but they were still emphasizing circumcision. [13] "The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy." So even though they had gone through this transition of understanding, with revelation from God to Peter in Acts 10 and 11, even though there has been a resolution of the issue described in Galatians 2:1-10 of the famine visit in Acts 11:30, there is another meeting that is not described in Acts. This is when they came up to Antioch and Peter is being called out for his hypocrisy. It has carried away all the Jews except for Paul. He is the only one who is clearly understanding the issue. [14] "But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel …" That is the issue here. Paul is keeping his eye on the objective and on the ball. It is the purity of the gospel that it is faith alone in Christ alone.  " … I said to Cephas in the presence of all, 'If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how {is it that} you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?'"

Galatians 2:15 NASB "We {are} Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; [16] nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified."

Galatians 2:17 NASB "But if, while seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have also been found sinners, is Christ then a minister of sin? May it never be! [19] "For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God. [20] I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the {life} which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. [21] "I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness {comes} through the Law, then Christ died needlessly." That is the bottom line. If we get righteousness from what we do then Christ died in vain. That is why the gospel excludes every manner of works. If you add anything to the gospel, anything to faith alone, you destroy the gospel. 

This is clarified. So we have the issue of Peter going to Cornelius, the visit of Acts 11:30, the confrontation with Peter in Antioch, and then after the second missionary journey with the tremendous response among the Gentiles there is a fourth meeting in Acts 15 to deal with this issue of what is going to be required of the Gentiles.

Acts 15:3 NASB "Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren." At the point of being a little bit humorous there were probably a lot of males who thought it was quite wonderful that they weren't going to have to be circumcised! That's probably the sub-text here. But Barnabas and Paul are taking their time travelling south and are visiting all the congregations emphasizing this free work of grace that God was doing among the Gentiles, and that they are not required to be saved by also entering into the Mosaic Law via circumcision.

Acts 15:4 NASB "When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them." But a conflict comes up. [5] But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, 'It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.'" These Pharisees are believers but now after their acceptance of grace they decided to add something to the mix. More is going on here than simply saying they need to be circumcised, they need to do something in addition to the cross in order to be saved. They are still thinking that in order to become the people of God they have to become Jewish. They haven't understood the distinction between Israel and the church. This is the reverse side of the group that comes along later on and says that God has replaced Israel with the church. They didn't understand that there were two distinct peoples of God in God's plan. There was a Jewish plan in the Old Testament and with the Jewish rejection of Jesus as Messiah God's plan for Israel was put on hold; there was a pause. God has generated a new people where Jew or Gentile issues are not related, only faith in Christ, and that at that moment we become a new spiritual entity in the church where Jew and Gentile is not part of it.

There are many different types of messianic congregations. There are some that fail to understand this issue that they are now in the church. Their Jewishness is not a factor in terms of anything because their reward and inheritance is going to be with the church. It is not going to be a future land. They are neither Jew nor Greek in the church and their inheritance is not related to the land; it is distinct from God's promise to Israel. This is the problem: understanding God has a distinct plan for the Jew and a distinct plan for the church. God will return to a focus on Israel after the Rapture of the church, but until then the focus is on this new entity where neither Jew nor Gentile is an issue.

Acts 15:6 NASB "The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter." The word "look" is the Greek verb horao which means to look at something. So they are going to examine it. It is used metaphorically for the sense of examination, to ascertain, to evaluate the various arguments in terms of a position. As they do they there is a dispute. It can mean an investigation but it more or less has the idea of a discussion or a debate. They are going to hash out, listen to all sides, and then come to a conclusion. In the process they give a great model of how churches and mature believers should work through details and come to a particular conclusion. They are not our for any particular agenda and in the end even those who are former Pharisees agree with them.