Galatians 2:15-16 – One does not have to be circumcised to be justified.

SUMMARY

ACTS 15 CHURCH COUNCIL

The circumcision party justified their demand for the circumcision of Gentile Christians by claiming that people are justified (accepted by God) by observing the works of the Law of Moses. This does not mean to try to be good or to love God and your neighbors. It means to earn salvation through the observance of the rituals and ceremonies of the Law of Moses, as interpreted through the Traditions.

They focused on circumcision because that was the door into Judaism; the first step to observing the works of the Law of Moses.

To explain why one does not have to be circumcised, Paul not only explains that “man is not justified by the works of the Law” (2:16), he also provides the correct alternative, namely, that man is justified “through faith in Christ Jesus” (2:16). “Faith” is an internal mindset that trusts God’s grace to forgive your sins.

The Acts 15 Church Council was called to settle the dispute. It supported Paul’s position but did not address the circumcision of baby boys from Jewish Christian homes or whether Jewish Christians must observe the Law of Moses. Jewish Christians continued to live like Jews. 

The Church Council also did not address moral laws, such as killing or hating people. Its only concern was circumcision and the other ceremonies and rituals. Gentile Christians, obviously, have to adhere to God’s eternal moral principles as explained by Christ, which Paul calls “the Law of Christ.”

GALATIANS 2:15-16

2:15 “We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; 2:16 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.

WE ARE JEWS

This distortion of the gospel is caused by Jewish Christians and Paul, therefore Paul addresses them directly.  “We” and “our” in Galatians often refer to Jews.

JUSTIFIED BY THE WORKS OF THE LAW

Since Paul argues that “man is not justified by the works of the Law” (2:16), we can infer that “the party of the circumcision” (2:12) argued the opposite, namely that man is justified by the works of the Law.  This is confirmed later in the letter, where we read that the Galatians were seeking “to be justified by law” (5:4).

Acts 15 also confirms this. Galatians only contains Paul’s arguments. We see his opponents’ arguments only indirectly reflected in Paul’s rebuttal. But his opponents’ arguments are recorded more directly in Acts 15.

Justified means to be accepted by God, in spite of your sins. The Jews argued that one is accepted by God if you observe “the works of the Law.” This does not mean to try to be good. It means to rely on the observance of the rituals and ceremonies of the Law of Moses, as interpreted through the Traditions.

JUSTIFIED THROUGH FAITH IN CHRIST

Paul not only explains that “man is not justified by the works of the Law” (2:16).  He also provides the correct alternative, namely, that man is justified “through faith in Christ Jesus” (2:16).  The article In Christ explains that the phrase “by faith in Christ” actually consists of two parts:

By faith” refers to trust in both God the Father and His Christ.
In Christ” refers to the fact that Christ is the Means through which the Father saves people (E.g. Col. 1:13-14).

The Jewish “works of the Law” were external deeds through which one earns salvation.  In contrast, Paul wrote that people are saved “by faith,” which refers to an internal mindset of trust in God’s grace (merciful-kindness) to forgive your sins. The difference between the two systems of salvation is discussed in the article By Grace through Faith. Paul argued for a different law (the Law of Christ) and a different means of justification (by grace through faith).

Galatians 2:16 is, therefore, a pivotal verse in the letter to the Galatians. The remainder of this article several times refers back to this verse.

FORENSIC JUSTIFICATION

We agree today that people are saved by grace through faith, but we disagree on how that exactly works. There are many Atonement Theories. One of the prominent theories relies on the legal undertones of the word “justified” to describe atonement as a legal process through which Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the sinner. See the article Justified for a further discussion.

ACTS 15 CHURCH COUNCIL

CALLED TO SETTLE THE DISPUTE

For the following reasons, it is proposed that the church council meeting in Acts 15 was called to settle the dispute in Antioch that is recorded in Galatians 2:

      • Both disputes arose after men arrived in Antioch from Judea (Acts 14:26; 15:1; Gal. 2:11-12 – from James = from Judea).
      • In both disputes, Paul opposed these men from Judea (Acts 15:2).
      • Both disputes were about the circumcision of Gentiles (Acts 15:3, 5; Gal. 2:12, 14) and about how people are justified (Gal. 2:16; Acts 15:1).

THE VIEWS OF THE CIRCUMCISION PARTY

If we conclude that the church council in Jerusalem was called to settle the dispute in Antioch as recorded in Galatians 2:11-14 (Acts 15:2), or even if it is only agreed that the same issues were involved, the arguments of Paul’s opponents, as provided by Acts 15, helps us to understand the issue in Antioch, and therefore in Galatia. They argued:

        • “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).
        • It is necessary to circumcise them (the Gentiles) and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses” (Acts 15:5).

Therefore:

Paul’s opponents not only demanded that Gentile Christians be circumcised, but also that Gentile Christians “observe the Law of Moses”.

They justified their demands by saying that this is required for salvation, which is the same as justified. This explains why Paul in Galatians responded that “man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus” (2:16). In Galatians chapter 3. Paul provides various arguments in support of his view, while chapters 5 and 6, being more practical in nature, returns to focus more specifically on circumcision itself.

THE CHURCH COUNCIL AGREED WITH PAUL.

There is nothing recorded that happened in Antioch that supports Paul’s view on circumcision, apart from his own arguments, but if we accept that the council meeting in Acts 15 is an extension of the events in Antioch, then we obtain support for Paul’s view from the church council’s decision.  The issue on the table was whether Gentiles must be circumcised (Acts 15:1, 3, 5), and the decision of the church council was that “we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood” (Acts 15:19-20).  The church council, therefore, supported Paul’s position that Gentiles should not be circumcised.

JEWISH CHRISTIANS STILL OBSERVED THE LAW.

The question before the council, as well as their decision, did not address the circumcision of baby boys from Jewish Christian homes or whether Jewish Christians must observe the Law of Moses.  The implication is that Jewish Christians continued to observe the Law of Moses. 

The Jewish Christians had Christ’s teachings, which focus on the internal issues of the heart and mind (love & faith), in contrast to the Judaism of Christ’s day with its focus on external works. However, Christ did not preach against the Law of Moses.  Christ’s teachings did not contradict the Old Testament but were consistent with the prophets that repeatedly pleaded for the circumcision of the heart.  The Law of Moses, as received from God, was not a system of justification by works, but it developed into one through the addition of the elaborate ancestral traditions.  It was only some years after Christ’s death that God sent Paul to preach the message as contained in Galatians.  The change took many years and decades to complete the change, and at the time of the events in Acts 15, the Jewish Christians still continued all practices of the Law of Moses.  (See Jerusalem Phase of the Early Church)

CHRISTIANS MUST OBSERVE THE LAW OF CHRIST.

The church council was called to discuss the relevance of the “Law of Moses” (Acts 15:1, 5) for Gentile Christians. This implies that the “Law” in Galatians 2:16 and in most of that letter is the Law of Moses.  This is confirmed by Galatians 3:17 and 4:24-25. More specifically, the church council was not asked to deal with moral laws, such as killing or hating people. Its only concern was circumcision and the other ceremonies and rituals.

The only part of Galatians that does not deal with the Law of Moses is 5:13-6:10, where Paul discusses the Law of Christ (6:2).  Gentile Christians, obviously, have to adhere to God’s eternal moral principles as explained by Christ, which Paul calls “the Law of Christ.”

Therefore, when Paul argues that “man is not justified by the works of the Law”, he specifically refers to the works of the Law of Moses.  This is important because later he would argue that “the doers of the Law will be justified” (Rom. 2:13; compare Gal. 6:2-8), where he refers to the Law of Christ.  See By Grace through Faith for a further discussion. 

TO: Galatians Table of Contents
TO: Summary of Galatians chapters 1 to 3
NEXT: Galatians 2:17-18

Galatians 2:11-14 – Paul reproved Peter for yielding to the Circumcision Party.

SUMMARY

Peter preaching at the temple
PETER PREACHING IN JERUSALEM

Paul and Peter agreed in Jerusalem but in Antioch, Paul had to publicly reprimand Peter.

According to the Traditions of the Elders, uncircumcised people are unclean and did not permit Jews to eat or associate with them. However, God had shown Peter, in a vision, “that I should not call any man unholy or unclean” (Acts 10:28).

On the basis of the vision he received, Peter “used to eat with the Gentiles” (2:12) but when “the party of the circumcision” arrived in Antioch from Jerusalem, he and other Jewish Christians, in fear of these men, avoided the Gentile Christians (2:12). In that way, Peter acted contrary to the vision which he received and effectively gave support to the demands of the circumcision party (2:14). Paul then publicly reprimanded Peter for submitting to the Circumcision Party (2:14).

The circumcision party not only demanded that Gentile Christians be circumcised (2:13); circumcision was only the door into to “live like Jews,” which means to comply with the entire Law of Moses, as well as to Traditions of the Elders.

This incident occurred in Antioch, but it was the same as the distorted gospel in Galatia.

GALATIANS 2:11-14

2:11 But when Cephas (NIV – Peter) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 2:12 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. 2:13 The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. 2:14 But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, 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?

PAUL AND PETER DISAGREE

The first 10 verses of the current chapter report the visit to Jerusalem, where Paul submitted the good news (gospel) which he preached to the Gentiles to the church leaders (2:2) and obtained their approval (2:9).  Peter was one of those church leaders that gave his consent, but now the focus shifts to an incident in Antioch where Paul met Peter again, but this time they disagreed.

COMPEL GENTILES TO BE CIRCUMCISED

The name of the “men from James”, namely “the party of the circumcision”, indicates that they were the people that “try to compel you to be circumcised” (6:12).  As concluded from the Titus-example (2:3), who was not “compelled to be circumcised”, this confirms that the distortion of the gospel in Galatia was to compel Gentiles to be circumcised.

FORBID ASSOCIATION WITH GENTILES

Prior to the coming of certain men from James, he (Peter) used to eat with the Gentiles” (2:12).  The Old Testament does not forbid eating with Gentiles, but the Jewish additions to the Old Testament Law, referred to as the “traditions of my fathers” (1:14), declared Gentiles to be unclean and therefore strongly prohibited eating with or in any way associating with uncircumcised people, for instance:

Pharisees and their scribes began grumbling at His disciples, saying”: “Why do you eat and drink with the tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30)

 “… the Samaritan woman said to Him, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)” (John 4:9)

… he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him … “ (Acts 10:28)

… when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those who were circumcised took issue with him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” (Acts 11:2-3)

PETER’S VISION

In the first few years of the church it consisted only of Jews, and the Christians, viewing themselves as the true Israelites, kept their distance from all Gentiles, whom they considered to be “unclean”.  But then God gave Peter a vision in which “an object like a great sheet” came down from heaven, filled with “all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air” (Acts 10:12).  In the vision, Peter was instructed to kill and eat.  Many people erroneously think that God gave this vision to teach Christians that they may eat unclean animals, but Peter interpreted the vision as follows:

 “… God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean” (Acts 10:28)

On the basis of this revelation Peter “used to eat with the Gentiles” (1:12).  In fact, before the arrival of “the party of the circumcision” Peter lived “like the Gentiles and not like the Jews” (1:14).

PETER STOOD CONDEMNED

But when they (the men from James) came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof” (2:12).  Since this is stated as the opposite of eating with Gentiles, “he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles” (2:12 NIV).  He thereby acted contrary to the vision God gave him, and for that reason “stood condemned” (2:11).

COMPEL GENTILES TO LIVE LIKE JEWS

In 2:14 Paul accuses Peter of compelling “the Gentiles to live like Jews”.  The NIV translates this as to “force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs”.  This was what the Christian Jews effectively did by keeping themselves aloof from the Gentile Christians.  The distortion, therefore, was more than compelling Gentiles to be circumcised and refusing to eat with Gentile Christians.  Circumcision was only the door into the Jewish way of life.  To “live like Jews” means to comply with the entire Law of Moses, as well as to comply with the thousands of rules contained in the “traditions” (see discussion under 1:14).

SAME DISTORTION IN GALATIA

These verses report something that happened in Antioch, not in Galatia, but since this is mentioned in this letter, which intends to correct the distortion in Galatia, it is implied to be the same distortion.

CIRCUMCISION PARTY WAS STRONG

This is indicated by a number of things.  Firstly, in Antioch, all the Jews opposed Paul.  Peter, as the “apostle … to the circumcised” (2:8), was, in that sense, the leader of the large number of Christian Jews in the church.  Perhaps for that reason, Paul addresses him directly, but the distortion was not limited to Peter.  In Antioch all the Jewish Christians yielded to the pressure; “even Barnabas” (2:13); one of Paul’s strong allies.  Paul alone stood against them (2:14), reacting strongly and publicly (2:14) to their “hypocrisy” (2:13).  This seems to indicate that the distortion originated with the Jewish Christians; it was not initiated by the Gentile Christians.

Secondly, at that time Jews were still probably in the majority in the church, and occupied most of the leadership positions.  Since the distortion originated with them, it probably had strong support in the church.

This is thirdly indicated by the description of “the party of the circumcision” (2:12) as “men from James” (2:12).  James was the brother of Jesus (1:19) and, along with Peter and John, was one of the “pillars” in the early church (2:9; Acts 12:17; 15:13).  The “party of the circumcision” therefore was a very influential movement within the young Christian church, with strong support from “those who were of reputation” (2:6).  That is why Peter feared these “men from James” (2:12).

PETER ACCEPTED PAUL’S CORRECTION

Eventually, Peter must have accepted Paul’s correction, because he wrote:

our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him …” (2 Peter 3:15).

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TO: Summary of Galatians chapters 1 to 3
NEXT: Galatians 2:15-16

Galatians 2:1-10 – Paul took Titus with to visit the church leaders in Jerusalem.

SUMMARY

The distorted gospel in Galatia compelled Gentiles to be circumcised (6:12). Paul, in defense of the gospel which he received, recounts an incident when he visited Jerusalem which, at the time, still was the headquarters of the Christian church:

He went to Jerusalem to submit to the leaders the gospel which he preached “among the Gentiles” (2:2). They had nothing to add to his message (2:6). Paul mentioned this to show that he did not receive his message from men. 

They gave Paul “the right hand of fellowship” (2:9), which means that they accepted his message. 

Paul took an uncircumcised Gentile Christian (Titus) with him on his visit. While Jewish Christians in Galatia sought to bring Gentile Christians into the “bondage” (2:4) of circumcision and the Law of Moses, Titus served as an example of the “liberty which we have in Christ Jesus” (2:4). The church leaders accepted Titus and did not ask for him to be circumcised (2:3). 

GALATIANS 2:1-10
TITUS IN JERUSALEM

2:1 Then after an interval of fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along also. 2:2 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.

2:3 But not even Titus, who was with me, though he was a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised. 2:4 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. 2:5 But we did not yield in subjection to them for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel would remain with you.

2:6 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. 2:7 But on the contrary, seeing that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised 2:8 (for He who effectually worked for Peter in his apostleship to the circumcised effectually worked for me also to the Gentiles), 2:9 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.  2:10 They only asked us to remember the poor–the very thing I also was eager to do.


THOSE WHO WERE OF HIGH REPUTATION

At the time, the headquarters of the Christian church was still in Jerusalem.  Paul went there to submit to “those who were of reputation” in the church in those days the gospel which he preached “among the Gentiles”.  In 2:9 he mentions “James and Cephas (Peter) and John” as “reputed to be pillars” (2:9).  James was Christ’s brother (1:19), and an important person in the young church at the time.

Paul went to Jerusalem to seek the approval from the church headquarters for the message he preached, but eventually, God made his message to stand and substantially dominate the New Testament.  The writings of James, Peter and John, while still inspired, are much smaller and were ‘relegated’ to the back of the New Testament.

FALSE BRETHREN

The “false brethren” (2:4) were Christians.  They are the same or similar to the Christians in Galatia that “are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ” (1:7).

BONDAGE AND LIBERTY

The false brethren were trying to bring their fellow Christians “into bondage” (2:4).

Paul and Barnabas took Titus—an uncircumcised Gentile Christian—along with them on their visit to the church leaders in Jerusalem, probably as an example of the work they are doing among the Gentiles.  The church leaders, namely James, Peter and John (2:9), accepted Titus and did not ask for him to be circumcised (2:3).  The mention of Titus, that was not compelled to be circumcised, in the same context as “bondage” and “liberty,” implies that the bondage had to do with circumcision.

The fact that this incident in Jerusalem is so pertinently mentioned in the letter to the Galatians implies that the distorted gospel in Galatia also compelled Gentiles to be circumcised and that Paul mentions this incident to justify the “liberty which we have in Christ Jesus” (2:4), namely that Gentiles, like Titus, did not have to be circumcised (2:3; compare to Acts 15:19-20).  This will be confirmed later in the letter, where we will read that some people were trying to compel the Galatians to be circumcised (6:12).

PAUL’S DEFENSE

In defense of his gospel, Paul argues:

Firstly, that he was “not sent from men” (1:1) and that “those who were of high reputation” (2:6) “contributed nothing” to his message (2:6).

Secondly, that God “entrusted (him) with the gospel to the uncircumcised (the Gentiles)”, which by implication gives him the right to dictate what Gentile Christians must do and not do.

Thirdly, that the church leaders in Jerusalem accepted his calling and message as from God (2:9).

THE UNCIRCUMCISED

In 1:16 and in 2:2, Paul refers to his calling to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, but in 2:7 he says his calling was to preach to the “uncircumcised.”  Gentiles were always allowed to join Judaism through circumcision.  Then they would become part of the “circumcised” (2:7). The “uncircumcised” therefore refers to the uncircumcised Gentiles.

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