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Against Circumcision

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Read Galatians 1:18-2:10
Galatians 1:18–2:10 ESV
Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they glorified God because of me. Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain. But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery— to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you. And from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me. On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.
A couple weeks ago, we saw that Paul, after conversion to Christ on the Damascus road, did not seek the approval of those who were apostles before him to start preaching the Gospel that was given to him. This week, we see what the beginning of Paul’s interactions with other apostles looked like and resulted in.
To begin, Paul tells us that after he had preached the Gospel independently from the other apostles, he decides to visit Jerusalem, and consult with Peter. He says that he remained with Peter fifteen days, and he didn’t see any other apostles besides James, the brother of the Lord. Here, Paul really wants to drive home the fact that he is telling the truth. He went up with the intent of visiting Peter, but only, probably incidentally, saw James besides Peter. Later in our passage, Paul will identify James, Peter, and John as the “pillar” apostles, those who held up the church by virtue of their teaching and status (though we will also see, again, that neither the Gospel nor the Church is dependent on the status of these three). So it’s important that Paul is emphasizing that he went only to intentionally visit Peter, and even at that, he didn’t meet with all three of the “pillar” apostles. His purpose is not to confirm the Gospel by the most influential leaders.
Paul doesn’t tell us why he went to visit Peter, just simply that it happened. Paul is being, in currently politically correct terminology, “transparent” with his readers. He doesn’t want anything kept from them that may be twisted and brought against him later. Paul confirms that this is the truth by an oath - “Before God I do not lie.” He wants to ensure that his readers might trust his testimony, because their surety about the Gospel will depend on it - not the Gospel itself, because as Paul has said before, it stands on it’s own authority - but their perception of it is in great danger at this point.
Paul tells us that next, he left Jerusalem and went to the regions of Syria and Cilicia. He add this note, that he was still unknown personally to the churches in Judea. Paul emphasizes this for two reasons, to show that his first visit to Jerusalem was very short - he didn’t have time to become known to the Churches in Judea while he was there. Second, this highlights the fact that Paul was not seeking Israel’s confirmation of his Gospel - the Churches in Judea did not need to confirm what he was preaching. They simply knew that he once persecuted the people of God in Christ, but now he preached the faith that he tried to destroy. They knew only the bare minimum of the legendary Saul of Tarsus, the things that surely most of both the Church and Israel knew at this point in history. And they glorified God because of the work that was done in Paul.
Paul continues this progression of events, and tells us that he went to Jerusalem after fourteen years. Now, it is possible that Paul is taking this time to be from his conversion, or it could possibly be from the time of his previous visit to Jerusalem. There is nothing in the text to tell us which event Paul sees as the baseline for his chronology, and it doesn’t affect a great deal. But this time, Paul will have much more thorough interaction with the other apostles - but he tells us that this wasn’t without witnesses. He tells us that he went with Barnabas, and they took Titus along with them as well. I would argue that here, we see an allusion to the Torah idea of a matter being established on the basis of multiple witnesses. If anyone would bring a charge against Paul concerning what happened on his second visit to Jerusalem, the one which will set the pace for the substantiation of his Gospel with the other apostles, he has multiple witnesses besides the apostles, that can attest to what happened.
This time, we know why Paul went to Jerusalem. He tells us that he went according to a revelation. There is some debate regarding what this revelation was, but it is very likely that it is the revelation of famine in Judea, which Luke tells us about in .
Acts 11:27–30 ESV
Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.
This also would sit well in the context of Paul telling his readers that he was unknown to the churches of Judea - the next visit he describes is done in the context of bringing relief to these particular churches. Again, we can’t be certain that this visit is what Paul is talking about, and Paul is not concerned with telling us explicitly, but it seems likely that this prophecy is the occasion for this visit.
Paul tells us that upon his visit, he brought the Gospel before those who were influential. Paul uses this term multiple times referring to the apostles here - in Greek, he literally calls them “the seeming” - those who seemed influential. But he did this secretly. This wasn’t a large show so that all could see that he was preaching a Gospel that was affirmed by the apostles. He says he did this to ensure that he was not running, and had not run in vain. We might say at this point - “how strong was Paul’s confidence in the Gospel, if he was worried about running in vain?” But it’s reasonable to see this as Paul seeking to have the affirmation of the apostles for practical reasons. Paul may understand that the Gospel’s authority does not come from the apostles, but Paul still lived in the real world where sin has a stronghold on the world. If all the apostles had turned their back on Paul’s Gospel, that wouldn’t have nullified it - but that doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t have created massive problems for the apostle Paul. If the apostles had not affirmed the Gospel, then Paul’s work would have likely, from a human perspective, been completely undone as the regions that he evangelized heard of the disagreement between Paul and the apostles in Jerusalem. For expediency, Paul sought to have the affirmation of his fellow apostles, so that the Gospel may not be hindered. In a show of agreement with Paul, the Jerusalem apostles do not compel Titus to be circumcised, even though he was Greek.
Now to stop here for a moment, it’s worth noting that Paul’s wording here betrays a bit of how Paul envisioned the New Covenant. He tells us that Titus, “being Greek”, was not compelled to be circumcised. The ESV translates this well capturing the idea - “though he was Greek, he was not forced to be circumcised”. One could ask “why was this an issue?” I think Paul answers this here - the New Covenant is a continuation of Covenant Israel, in which Gentiles find a previously impossible, citizenship within the Covenant people of Israel. You might ask why I say this. Why would the circumcision of Titus have been an issue? Because a Gentile proselyte coming into Israel needed to be circumcised. Now, some of my Dispensationalist friends may object, saying that this simply shows that Paul didn’t see this as the case, otherwise Titus would have been circumcised. But we will see, especially later, that this position can’t hold water if we follow Paul’s argument in the letter. But I think the wording that Paul uses is important. I would argue that it is reasonable to expect that Paul would have phrased it differently if he envisioned a Jewish Gentile distinction in the New Covenant. He could have said “Titus is a Greek, so we didn’t circumcise him”. He was Greek, and we don’t circumcise Greeks because they aren’t Jews. But Paul’s wording is a sort of counter expectation - one would expect that, being Greek, Titus would be circumcised upon entrance to the New Covenant alongside Israel. Paul doesn’t explicitly say this here, but given the rest of the argument of the letter, and the wording that Paul chooses, it is a very reasonable assumption that this is his reason. This point doesn’t hang on this passage, but this passage is indicative of Paul’s understanding of the New Covenant.
So at this point, we’ve addressed the reason, but the cause of the topic, is that false brothers came in. We are at the climax of this chapter in Paul’s history. Paul tells us that these false brothers came in with the purpose of spying out their freedon in Christ, in order to enslave them. Especially in Galatians, Paul’s language of freedom and slavery is always with reference to the Law, particularly circumcision. We see this particularly in Chapter 5. Here it is only implied in the context of the circumcision of Titus (which would have been according to the Law).
So what do Paul and the apostles do? Well, that’s kind of tricky to answer. Some commentators debate what was done here. It seems pretty straight forward according to most English versions. But there is a significant textual variant in the text at this point. I don’t want to spend a great deal of time here, but it’s important to talk about. One of the major codices that we have, and various writers in the early church, such as Tertullian and Irenaeus, read verse 5 as “we yielded to them in submission for a moment” rather than “but we did not yield to them in submission even for a moment”. Now, this doesn’t have a great deal of evidence to being original, either among manuscripts or in the context of the letter. It’s worth mentioning because commentators that want to make Paul weaker, will argue for this variant. Now, the oldest manuscripts, and in fact one of the best manuscripts that we have of Paul’s epistles, does not read this way. It reads just as the ESV translates it. It’s also not consistent with Paul’s theology later in the letter. If they circumcised Titus, they in fact enslaved him to the entirety of the law as he tells us in chapter 5, which Paul will not have. The codex that we have that contains this reading follows a textual tradition which was in line with the latin versions prior to the Vulgate, which Jerome makes note of, but rejects in his translating of the Vulgate. Which also explains why Tertullian and Irenaeus would follow this reading, as they likely followed an Old Latin text. Now that I’ve bored some of you to death, we can conclude on this, that given the very faint and late sources of this variant, and given the great amount of witnesses to the reading we have, it’s almost certain that this is original.
So Titus was not circumcised, and for the purpose of the integrity of the Gospel. Paul tells his readers that they did not yield to them so that the Gospel would be preserved for them. Again, this is perfectly in line with what Paul has said already, and what he will say later - to give in to circumcision, to give in to observance of the Law, is to destroy the Gospel, and to be enslaved in the law, in distinction from the freedom which is found in Christ.
So now that the circumcision of Titus has been resolved, and Paul and the Apostles have held their ground, Paul tells us that the other apostles added nothing to what he said. Again, he uses this term “the seeming”. He calls the other apostles literally “Those seeming to be something” “But”, he says, “what they then were made no difference to me, because God shows no partiality.” Paul wasn’t enthralled with the position of the other apostles. He recognized it, but it was of no consequence to him, because the Gospel is not dependent on them, and God showed no Partiality between them.
He says that they added nothing to him, but seeing that he had been entrusted with the Gospel to the uncircumcised, in the same manner that Peter was entrusted with the Gospel to the circumcised. Paul tells us that this is because the same One brought about both of their apostleship - God. If God brought about their apostleship, it is certain that their Gospel will align, and they will carry the same authority as they take the Gospel to their respective audiences.
Because of this fact, that God worked both of them to apostleship, the other apostles, particularly those Paul identifies as “Pillars”, James, Peter, and John, give to Paul and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, to take the Gospel to the Gentiles.
So for today’s text, we have a happy ending - for now. But what does it mean for us? What can we take from Paul’s history here? Obviously, Paul is continuing to hammer home the fact that the Gospel depends on no man, and no man has authority to ratify the Gospel. But, even though this is the case, it is expedient and helpful for the church to have doctrinal agreement, and not simply unspoken doctrinal agreement. As we saw with Paul’s bringing the Gospel before those of influence, sometimes it is practically expedient to have a vocal agreement of doctrine among influential leaders. Unfortunately we have seen much less of this in the last couple hundred years. While I am not a confessional Baptist, I see great usefulness in the doctrinal agreement which Presbyterians, reformed baptists, and others have sought to have by means of a confessional statement which they require strict adherence to. I don’t think this is absolutely necessary, but if you compare a reformed baptist church with a typical southern baptist church, you will find a great deal of variation among churches claiming the same denomination. If I want to know what any reformed baptist church believes, I can read the London Baptist confession, and I know, very well, what they believe. This is helpful for believers and ministers of the Gospel, to know what kind of environment they may be stepping into. The Westminster confession of Faith, and the London Baptist confession are drastically similar. They vary at minor points, such as baptism, and church polity, but they have great agreement concerning essentials in the faith, unlike denominations that are not confessional. This isn’t fool proof, and I wouldn’t argue for a confessional system, but the point is that vocal and visible doctrinal agreement among leaders is extremely helpful.
But second, we can take from Paul’s experience, that sometimes, what is expedient is detrimental to the Gospel. When Pashia and I lived in Marshfield, there were two churches that sought to be expedient. One church would, yearly, would have a month or two long “giveaway”, wherein they would give you a ticket, or write your name down every time you came to church, and at the end of the month or two long time span, they would give the car away, and the more times you went to church, the better chance you had to win the car. Sounds great, right? Another church, would have giveaways of expensive items such as iPads, and this is done routinely. Sounds great, right? Well, feeding the covetousness of unbelievers so that they will come into the church, isn’t exactly helping the Gospel. In a similar, but much worse way, giving in to adherence to the law, though it may be expedient, doesn’t actually help the Gospel, but rather hinders it, and destroys its work. Those who work in the ministry of the Gospel, should not do that which is expedient if it will act in a way that nullifies the Gospel, or acts in a way that is disobedient to the Gospel’s message.
Finally, again, even an apostle is not the final authority on the Gospel, including Peter. If apostles are not the final authority, because the authority rests with God, then we should not elevate anyone to the point that their stance or opinion is final for us. But why did I single out Peter? I would like to read something for you. “The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful - who confirms his brethren in the faith - he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals.” I’m sure we know where this comes from. This is the first portion of section 891 of the second edition Catechism of the Catholic Church. I hope that after this sermon, you can see all the problems in this particular Catholic doctrine. No man has infallibility, including the Pope, who supposedly derives his authority from Peter. Paul did not hang his authority on Peter, but considered himself equal. Peter could not have confirmed Paul in the faith. The way Paul talks about his fellow apostles, I think we can be certain that Paul would abhor, with utter disdain, such an idea as the Papacy. But don’t be fooled, protestants can tend to act much like this. Have you ever heard, or have you ever debated with someone, and heard “well, the bible may say that, but my pastor said....” or “well the bible may say that, but Billy Graham says....” Not to pick on Billy Graham. But I’m sure we’ve all encountered someone like this, who hangs ultimate authority upon their preferred teacher, theologian, or evangelist. I’ve known plenty of people like this. All authority within the Church is subject to the authority of God in the Gospel of Christ, and all men are fallible. May we look to Christ, and may we look to His word, rather than to the words of men. Let’s pray.
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