When you piece together Paul’s personal account with the later story Luke told, the picture unfolds. Paul had had just about enough with the ruptures the Pharisee party had caused in the Antioch church. After all his hard work teaching the truth, encouraging, training, and building up the believers in Antioch, after his long and arduous missionary journey, getting all those churches established, under very great strain and opposition, after all he and Barnabas had experienced together, and that Peter himself had experienced, after all that….
Yes. After all that, Paul had had just about enough.
I think it’s at that point that he threw himself down before the Lord Jesus, emotionally exhausted, spiritually spent, and prayed a wordless prayer that went something like, “I’m done in. I don’t know what to do.”
I think Paul was filled afresh with the dynamic power of the Holy Spirit, and went straightaway to the leaders of the various Antioch house churches and called for a prayer and fasting meeting very like the one they were having when the Holy Spirit moved them to appoint Paul and Barnabas as missionaries, back in Acts 13. They were already very disturbed by the sharp disputes and debates that were being stirred up in all their congregations, and readily agreed.
So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.Acts 15:2 (NRSV)
Who were the other believers? Well, we know for sure one of them was Titus.
Now, Titus was a very interesting choice. He was an uncircumcised Greek whom Paul trusted implicitly as a leader and teacher.
Originally from Antioch, Titus had early become a missionary, church leader, peacemaker, troubleshooter, administrator, and beloved coworker with Paul. Tradition has him becoming the bishop of Crete.
It was Titus who had gone from Ephesus to Corinth to straighten things out after Paul’s first letter and subsequent painful visit, bringing with him a second (now lost) letter from Paul. Titus’ good report to Paul in Macedonia precipitated Paul’s happy 2nd Corinthian letter.
It was Titus whom Paul sent to make a collection for the Jerusalem church.
Now, Just think about this for a minute. Titus wasn’t just a Greek convert. He wasn’t just an uncircumcised believer. And Titus wasn’t even just a teacher at one of the local churches. Titus was one of Paul’s closest coworkers, he was part of Paul’s inner circle. He was entrusted with the kinds of roles and ministry only the most high-up leaders would be entrusted with.
The fact that Titus was not circumcised was huge. He was representing Jesus Christ to all the churches, yet he was an uncircumcised Greek. To the circumcised priests so carefully selected and groomed for their work in the temple, for the circumcised Pharisees, after their long years of study and training, and their diligent and zealous observance of the Law, this had to have been anathema.
So, it is significant that Paul brought Titus to the Jerusalem church as one of the people he wanted them to see in light of this deep doctrinal divide. How Titus was received was going to be a very big deal indeed.
Paul had already confronted Peter, at this point, and I think Barnabas must have been there as well, during that public spectacle, because now, at the big meeting of everyone in Jerusalem, Barnabas and Peter were back on board.
First, Paul and Barnabas described all that had been going on in Antioch and their first missionary journey. For many these were sit-at-the-edge-of-your-seat stories. I picture them all gasping every five minutes at the astounding things that had happened. Can you imagine them listening to what happened to Paul in Lystra?
At some point, their missionary report was interrupted by representatives of this Pharisee party, who took the floor, and wouldn’t give it back, insisting, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”
The dissension had to be addressed.
It appears that James, the brother of Jesus, who was the president of this council, dismissed the larger assembly for a while so there could be a private meeting between the apostles and elders.
Galatians 2 describes this more private meeting. Paul had received a revelation from God to go to the Jerusalem council, and to bring Titus with him as living proof of salvation by faith. The Pharisee party was, in effect, insisting Titus be circumcised.
Truth was a stake.
Paul was not going to give in to their demands, so the truth of the gospel would not be compromised. Paul did not have Titus circumcised because God Himself had accepted Titus without it. The old covenant requirements no longer applied.
Now remember, Paul had belonged to the strictest sect of the Pharisees around. No Jew, not even those from the Pharisee party, could stand on the same platform as Paul in terms of perfect Judaism.
- Paul had been tutored by the one of the highest authorities of his day, Gamaliel.
- Paul was a Hebrew of Hebrews, meaning he had grown up in a family that resisted Hellenization at every turn.
- Paul was from the tribe of Benjamin, a fierce and zealous tribe, and one of the only two tribes that had any legitimate claim to Jerusalem, the holy city, as it had been given to them as their ancestral inheritance in the Promised Land.
- As far as observance of the Law was concerned, Paul could say with a clear conscience, his record was absolutely spotless.
Paul was untouchable. He used that weight to add gravity to what he was saying. All of it was utterly meaningless to new birth in Christ.
After Paul, Peter reminded the council about his vision of what God was now declaring clean. He reminded them of going to Cornelius and all his household, and how they had all agreed this was of the Lord.
Peter clinched it by saying,
Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”Acts 15:10-11 (NRSV)
God was creating a new humanity – He was expanding the parameters of His chosen people to include all those who put their faith in Jesus. They would die with Christ and be born to new life, as a new person, a part of a new race of people who were all deeply connected to each other as brothers and sisters, beloved children of God. As God’s child, you are completely, thoroughly, consistently, unendingly loved by God. He delights in you as you.
The Pharisee party was saying all believers had to become Jewish before they would be accepted into God’s covenant family. Paul was saying no. Every believer becomes a part of God’s family purely by faith, just as Abraham was counted righteous by faith alone.
The list Paul had given, in his letter to the churches in Ephesus, is very short, really, that unifies in Christ:
- God’s one Holy Spirit
- One hope for eternal life through Jesus
- One Lord
- One faith
- One baptism
- One God and Father of all, Who is over all, through all and in all.
You and I have a lot to work with in preserving unity. How do you handle disagreements with other believers? What role does the Bible, prayer and really listening to each other have in resolving your disputes? How important is it to you to accept the other believers in your life, to love them and receive them in the same way God loves and receives them (as the Pharisees were unwilling to do)? How do you approach the ruptures that threaten to tear a community apart? Both sides on this issue made concessions in order for the community to be preserved, though on the core issue of salvation by grace, and inclusion into the new covenant by faith, there could be no compromise.
[A yoke | Pixabay]