1 Then after an interval of fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabus, taking Titus along also.
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.
3 But not even Titus, who was with me, though he was Greek, was compelled to be circumcised.
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.
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.
Verse two brings up the questions: Why did Paul essentially hide while sharing the gospel? Aren’t we supposed to “make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel” (Ephesians 6:19)? Here, I believe it is the difference between being bold and being foolish. There is a major difference between refusing to share the gospel out of fear, and being cautious when sharing the gospel out of wisdom – specifically, when God gives us a warning not to do so because it would put our life in jeopardy. Ecclesiastes 3:7b tells us that there is “A time to be silent and a time to speak,” and Jesus Himself ceased preaching in certain areas and withdrew when He knew that the Pharisees there plotted to kill Him (Matthew 12:14-15, Mark 3:6-7). Furthermore, in Acts 9:22-25, Paul stopped preaching in Damascus and fled because the Pharisees were plotting to kill him, and in Acts 16:6, the Holy Spirit warned Paul and Timothy not to preach the word in Asia at that time. However, while it is important to be aware of the existence of such God-approved exceptions, it is also critical to never forget that we are all called to be God’s witnesses “even to the remotest part of the earth,” to “serve Him without fear,” to “speak the word of God without fear,” to “do what is right without being frightened by any fear” (Acts 1:8, Luke 1:74, Philippians 1:14, 1 Peter 3:6).
Now onto the subject of the danger of legalism, presented in verses 4-5. I’d like to share the Message translation of these sentences because of how powerfully it phrases it: “While we were in conference we were infiltrated by spies pretending to be Christians, who slipped in to find out just how free true Christians are. Their ulterior motive was to reduce us to their brand of servitude. We didn’t give them the time of day. We were determined to preserve the truth of the Message for you.” I see three key dangers here: (1) legalism transforms faith into religious dogma, (2) when we replace a relationship with Jesus Christ with a list of rules, it is very off-putting to nonbelievers, and (3) it shadows the truth of the Gospel. Regarding the first danger, the Bible tells us in Colossians 2:20-23, “If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourselves to decrees, such as, ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’ (which all refer to things destined to perish with use) – in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.” Such dogmatic practices are a waste of time, and worse yet, that time could have been spent serving our Creator, rather than a list of useless rules. Regarding the second danger, Romans 2:4 states that “the kindness of God leads you to repentance” – not the impossible standards of the Law, but God’s kindness! The Gospel is not a message of “do such and such and be saved,” but rather, “believe in Jesus and be saved.” Regarding the third danger, Paul expresses this clearly in Galatians 2:21: “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.” To return to the Law is to belittle what Christ did on the cross. I’d also like to share the Message’s phrasing of this verse: “Is it not clear to you that to go back to that old rule-keeping, peer-pleasing religion would be an abandonment of everything personal and free in my relationship with God? I refuse to do that, to repudiate God’s grace. If a living relationship with God could come by rule-keeping, then Christ died unnecessarily.”
Today’s message is a sobering – and important – warning about the dangers of legalism. The next post will carry a bit more positive of a message – we’ll look at how God gives us each individual talents, and how these can be used for God’s glory. But first, a discussion question:
1- How do you find the balance between obeying God’s commandments but keeping the list of rules from becoming your main focus?
And remember you are more than welcome to comment on anything in the passage, regardless of whether or not I addressed it here.