Friday, June 10, 2011


It is unlikely that Jerusalem or Antioch leadership realized that this problem would arise, especially so quickly. Paul was conscious of his calling to evangelize Gentiles, but he saw the God-fearing Gentiles in the Jewish synagogues as those providentially prepared to be a bridge to wider Gentile audiences. Though it was virtually impossible to evangelize Gentiles without offending Jews, in this setting, Paul saw his ministry as indirectly serving to expedite Jewish salvation as well (Romans 9-11; Deuteronomy 32:21; Hosea 1:9). Bruce says, “It was as natural for God-fearing Gentiles to embrace the blessings of the gospel on these terms [salvation by grace through faith apart from the law] as it was for Jews to decline them on these terms.”

Forced out of Iconium by Jewish dissenters, Paul and Barnabas came to Lystra, a Roman colony like Pisidian Antioch. Timothy was likely converted from Judaism to Christianity here, along with his mother and grandmother (Acts 16:1), but Luke’s emphasis is on the conflict with pagans that Paul and Barnabas experienced. They healed a crippled man, the pagans were so amazed that they began to worship Paul as Hermes (the talker) and Barnabas as Zeus (the sovereign). Paul’s speech to them (unintelligent pagans, opposed to the later intellectual pagans in Athens) in Acts 14:15-17 was ineffective (Acts 17; Jonah 1:9); but the pagans were then incited against Paul and Barnabas by the Jews who had come following them from Pisidian Antioch and Iconium. Paul was stoned almost to death (2 Corinthians 11:25), but he persevered and the next day left Lystra for Derbe. After making converts in Derbe, 60 miles southeast from Lystra, Paul and Barnabas retraced their steps, encouraging the young congregations and appointing elders (Acts 14:23).

Paul and Barnabas left Antioch in the spring of 44 AD. They were gone for about two-and-a-half years. Acts 14:26-28 says that Paul and Barnabas, upon their return, stayed in Antioch “a long time with the disciples,” which probably means from the fall of 46 until the summer of 49 AD, another two-and-a-half years. Syrian Antioch had become a mother church, and the Jerusalem church had mixed feelings about that. Gentiles, unlike Jews, were not generally moral people, so conforming them to Jesus’ teachings would be difficult. Barnabas and Paul continued their evangelical efforts, but Jerusalem leaders could not continue with theirs, as persecution against them was kicking into high gear under Herod Agrippa’s short reign. James, the brother of John, was executed and Peter would have been had he not miraculously escaped prison (Acts 12). Even after Agrippa’s death in 44 AD, Jewish Zealots began persecuting – often by means of terrorism – anyone who was suspected of siding with Romans (and that included Gentile proselytizing, the very bridge-building that was deemed acceptable by the Jewish Christian church leadership).

The simple solution for the Jerusalem church to maintain authority as the true mother church was to demand circumcision from Gentile converts. Theologically, this enforcement would have made the converts more significantly conform to Jewish, and now Christian, moral standards; it would have likely kept any half-hearted converts from making that extensive leap to prove their faith; and perhaps equally important, from a political perspective, it would have appeased the Zealots and saved themselves from their persecution. But what of the already-converted Gentiles in Antioch and Galatia? It came to a head when, around that time, some Jerusalem Jews came to Antioch teaching that Gentiles must be circumcised in order to be salvation (Acts 15:1,5). Paul and Barnabas disputed this teaching, and they and other church members went to Jerusalem to discuss the issue with the church leaders (Acts 15; possibly Galatians 2:1-14).

We have mentioned the uncertainty over the timeline of Acts with Galatians. Here Acts 15 seems to fit with Galatians 2, but it is hard to put it together with all the likely coming and going of the leadership between Jerusalem and Antioch. It appears that, after the group came to Antioch preaching circumcision – Paul and Barnabas, along with other believers including Titus, met privately with James, Peter, and John in Jerusalem about incorporating Gentile believers into the Christian faith, specifically addressing, albeit without much concern, circumcision (Galatians 2:4-10). Then the issue was brought before the entire Jerusalem church (Acts 15:6, 12, 22), which determined, even though many Pharisee believers, probably the group that originally came to Antioch, wanted circumcision to be required, that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised (Acts 15:19). Paul, Barnabas, Silas, and others then returned to Antioch with the news (Acts 15:22-31).

Perhaps after that, Peter showed up in Antioch and waffled on the issue of fellowship when the pro-circumcision believers came again continuing to press the circumcision demand. Paul dealt with Peter on this, but notice how Peter’s position is not enviable. He likely agreed with what Paul would later write in Romans 14:13-21, that we should not use our freedom in such a way that causes our brother to stumble. He was in a tight spot, for he would have offended the one he perceived to be his brother no matter what he chose to do. Whatever Peter’s motives in withdrawing from fellowship with the Gentile believers, Paul saw them as negligible in comparison to the progress of the Gentile mission and the well being of the Gentile Christians. Peter’s actions caused Jewish Christians – even Barnabas – to follow suit! The Gentile Christians must have concluded either (1) that they would remain uncircumcised and second-class citizens in the eyes of some Jewish believers or (2) that they would accept circumcision to gain first class status. Either way, the good achieved at the Jerusalem Conference would be undone; the gospel would be compromised. We know Peter stood corrected by Paul, but we don’t know what happened next for his ministry.

Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch for an unknown time period (Acts 15:35-36), during which Paul may have written his letter to the Galatians (49 AD). The importance of this letter for the early church makes it a challenge to see that there is little agreement on its date, either before or after the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. Clearly there were fellowship and authority issues at stake between Jewish (especially Judaizers) and Gentile Christians before and after the council, so it may not matter. At the council, the Jerusalem leaders made the right decision for the gospel and, therefore, for Paul’s ministry.

Nevertheless, this period must have been challenging for Paul, an intelligent man who found it difficult to understand how others couldn’t see a logical argument as clearly as he saw it, especially when the premises were agreed upon. Acts 15:28 gave essentially two requirements for Gentile Christians, and these primarily for the sake of unity and fellowship (more so than doctrinal authority, as the circumcision mandate would have been): abstaining from sexual sin (fornication), and abstaining from certain foods related to idolatry (bloody, strangled, or sacrificed to idols). Paul’s teaching was inline with the apostolic authority on sexual sin. No argument made by the Gentile converts would sway him to compromise his – and the Lord’s – strict convictions there. But Paul was more open-minded on the food issue; his desire was mutual edification, whatever that required. For Paul, any obedience had to be voluntary, not compulsory, based on charity and not anxiety, disgruntlement, or fear. Paul referred to this attitude for voluntary, mutual edification as following “the law of Christ” or “love.” According to Bruce, love “cannot be imposed or enforced by external authority. Rather, it is the spontaneous principle of thought and action in a life controlled by the Spirit of Christ… Love is generated spontaneity and cannot be enforced by penal sanctions.”

Though the essence of Paul’s gospel, received by direct revelation from Jesus Christ on the Damascus Road, was unaffected by the conflict over Jew and Gentile Christian relations (circumcision and fellowship questions), his comprehension of the gospel, in terms of practicality, was enriched. Bruce says, “Justification by faith…was implicit in his conversion, but now it became in his hands a fighting doctrine – not only a principle for which to contend but a weapon with which to contend.” Many Christians may have seen faith in Christ and works of obedience as complimentary, but Paul, knowing that concept to be an impossible contradiction, said, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness for everyone who believes,” or “that everyone who has faith may be justified” (Romans 10:4). “End” could mean “goal” or “finishing point,” and Paul may mean both. As mentioned earlier, some scholars suggest that, in his early Christian learning, Paul must have recalled a Jewish chronological scheme, recorded in the Mishnah shortly before Paul’s education (and traditionally belonging to Elijah or Moses), claiming a 2000-year period of chaos (roughly creation to Moses), a 2000-year period of law (roughly Moses to Messiah), and a 2000-year period of the Messianic age (Messiah to end), all culminating in an eternity of Sabbath rest. Did Paul know of that scheme, and that easily put the epoch of the law to rest? We don’t know, but Paul, according to Bruce, “raised no objection…if Jewish Christians continued to observe (as he himself occasionally did) various customs prescribed by the law as part of their inherited way of life” (such as Passover; 1 Corinthians 9:20; Acts 16:3; 21:20-26).

In the end, the law may be deemed to have a threefold purpose – as a means of preservation (restraining sin), as a summons to repentance (showing us the sinfulness of sin and driving us to Christ), as guidance for the church (revealing God’s holy character) – but for Paul, the law of love, guided by the indwelling Holy Spirit, is all that mattered. The great question for Paul, which he explored in Romans 6-7, was, according to Bruce, this: “How can one who exists temporally ‘in the present evil age’ nevertheless enjoy deliverance from it and live here and now the life of the age to come? [The answer:] By the aid of the indwelling Spirit.” The Spirit generates love in us, and preaching the law of love borders on antinomianism, rather than legalism. Paul was, as Bruce declared, “the supreme libertarian, the great herald of Christian freedom, insisting that man in Christ…must no longer be confined to the leading-strings of infancy (the law) but enjoy the birthright of the freeborn sons of God (love by the Spirit). Here…Luther entered into the mind of Paul: ‘A Christian man is a most free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian man is a most dutiful servant, subject to all.’ ‘Subject to none’ in respect of his liberty; ‘subject to all’ in respect of his charity. This for Paul, is the law of Christ because this was the way of Christ. And in this way, for Paul, the divine purpose underlying Moses’ law is vindicated and accomplished.” Bruce concludes, “The purpose of the law, that men should be holy as God is holy (Leviticus 11:44) is thus (according to Paul) realized in the gospel.”

Even with this law of love working by the Spirit in the apostle Paul and throughout the young Christian churches, conflict was inescapable. While serving in Antioch, an argument arose between Barnabas and Paul over the issue of including or excluding John Mark from the planned trip to revisit the young churches founded during their first mission trip. Of course, John Mark “abandoned” them on the first trip (Acts 13:13), and so Paul wanted to exclude him. But Barnabas, being an encourager, and also being John Mark’s cousin or uncle (the word in Colossians 4:10 translated “cousin” could be “nephew” as well), wanted to take him on the journey. There is reason to believe that things weren’t the same between Paul and Barnabas even before this argument, after the confrontation with Peter over his refusal to eat with Gentile Christians while the Judaizers were in town. Paul says in Galatians 2:13 that even Barnabas was led astray in the hypocrisy, and a deep wound likely formed in their friendship from then on. Paul no doubt still held Barnabas in high esteem, but the rift made it impossible to work together. Their disagreement caused a split, which God worked for good; the church of Antioch was now sending two missionary teams to share the gospel instead of one.
There is no doubt that both parties (Barnabas with Mark, and Paul with Silas) benefited from this arrangement. Mark, who would later pen the gospel by his name and work with the apostle Peter (Acts 12:12; 1 Peter 5:13), grew in spiritual maturity under the encouragement of his relative, and Paul would later attest to his value in ministry (Colossians 4:10; Philemon 1:24; 2 Timothy 4:11). Silas was a great fit as Paul’s partner; he was like Paul in many ways: a Jewish Christian from Jerusalem who could vouch for the results of the Jerusalem Council should an inquiry arise; he, like Paul, had two names (Silas as his Jewish name, and Silvanus in Greek); he was a prophet and leader in the church, and even a Roman citizen with civic privileges, like Paul (as implied in Acts 16:36-37). He came to Antioch as one of two messengers bearing the letter declaring the results of Council at Jerusalem and remained there (Acts 15:34) until going with Paul on his second missionary journey. So Barnabas and John Mark went to Cyprus (Acts 15:36-41), and Paul journeyed with Silas through Asia Minor and eventually on to Greece. We know nothing of the trip to Cyprus, and Luke never again mentions Barnabas. Tradition holds that Barnabas remained a faithful evangelist and church builder, preaching in Alexandria and even Rome but cherishing his home island country, until his martyrdom at the hands of angry Jews in Cyprus in 61 AD. However, the journey of Paul and Silas is well documented.

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