Christ has set us free in freedom Galatians 5: 1. This is real liberty. Of course the Christian will shortly enjoy the liberty of the glory Romans 8: 21, but it is our privilege to know liberty now. The TRUTH sets us free, John 8: 32, and if the Son sets us free, we are free indeed John 8: 36. We read also that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty 2 Corinthians 3: 17.
The Galatian error was to mix law and grace and it brings souls into bondage. Having begun in the Spirit were they to be made perfect in the flesh? We do well to remind ourselves as to the dimensions of this difficulty, and how widespread is the error. Paul, in his missionary journeys, was frequently in collision with the Jews. In his epistles he constantly does battle with their teaching, e.g. in Corinthians, Colossians, Timothy, Hebrews, at some length, and there are smaller references elsewhere. In Galatians his tone is most severe. For teachers who encroach on Christian liberty, let them be accursed! The problem, (need we say it?), is not limited to history. That which professes the Name of Christ on every hand is largely judaised; and to complete the picture, we all carry the principles of the law, "the elements of the world" in our own hearts.
The purpose of this paper is to focus on a Scriptural situation where the Galatian error is the central consideration: the council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). In order properly to understand the council of Acts 15 it is necessary to look at the two assemblies concerned, in Antioch and in Jerusalem. The assembly in Antioch was a predominantly GENTILE assembly. We read of its formation and growth in Acts 11: 19-26. Following the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7) there was a persecution with scattering of the saints to Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, the Word going to none but the Jews. But some of them, from Cyprus and Cyrene (North Africa), when they came to Antioch, preached also to the Gentiles; and the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord. The news of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem and they sent Barnabas, and when he came to Antioch, he saw the grace of God and was glad. We cannot pause and admire the features which came to light in this man. "He was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith: and much people was added unto the Lord". May we not say, "praise the Lord and Lord, raise up some more like him in our day!" Well, Barnabas took account of the work, remembered Saul with whom he had already had dealings (Acts 9: 27) and departed to Tarsus, which is not far away, and when he had found him he brought him to Antioch. This set in motion twelve months of most successful teaching and the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch (Acts 11: 16). This is not quite the end of this story. It was in Antioch that the Holy Ghost said, "Separate Me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them". Paul's first missionary journey began and ended in Antioch. In summary then we can say that Antioch was a predominantly GENTILE assembly with the Apostle Paul, apostle of the uncircumcision, held in high esteem and affection.
The assembly at Jerusalem, on the other hand, was almost exclusively JEWISH. Jerusalem was the place where the Lord had been pleased to put His Name. The temple was there. For centuries Jews from every quarter came to Jerusalem for the festivals. They still do. With the advent of Christianity we read that a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith (Acts 6: 7), and when Paul came to Jerusalem for the last time (Acts 21: 20) they said to him "Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law." Peter, the apostle of the circumcision was in Jerusalem, John also, and it seems James was something of a leader in the church. If these two assembly situations are kept clearly in mind it goes a long way to understanding the significance, and also the triumph of the important council in Acts 15.
In Acts 15: 1 we read of certain men who came down from Judea teaching that "Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses ye cannot be saved". Well can we understand that there was no small discussion and disputation. How thankful we can be that there were apostles in Antioch to handle this matter. Yet, although an apostle, and that to the uncircumcision, Paul was not allowed to silence these teachers. Had he done so there would have been peace doubtless, but also the very real possibility of a division in the church, a Gentile assembly in Antioch with Paul as the leader, and a Jewish assembly in Jerusalem with Peter, or perhaps James as the leader. The Lord however loves His people too much to allow such a division and we read that it was "determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem" the very centre from which these troublers came "unto the apostles and elders, about this question". It is at this point we must bring in the additional details of Galatians 2. There we learn that Paul went up "by revelation", no new form of communication for Paul! He was clearly moving with God and it is a pleasure to see the success and ease with which this journey. was accomplished, Acts 15: 3, "being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles" (as they could do after Paul's first missionary journey) "and they caused great joy unto all the brethren. And when they were come to Jerusalem" ... here we revert again to Galatians 2, "I communicated unto them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles; but privately to them which were of reputation, lest by any means I should run, or had run, in vain". When they (that is James, Cephas and John) "who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision".
The opposition party now appears. In Galatians 2: 4 we read of "false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage". Certain of the Pharisees who believed (Acts 15: 5) were also saying that it was needful to circumcise the converts and to command them to keep the law of Moses. To both of these groups Paul says "we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour", and Titus the Greek, whom Paul had taken with them, was not compelled to be circumcised (Galatians 2: 3). The apostles and elders, in a full assembly meeting, then came together to consider the matter. There was much disputing, but then Peter stood up (Acts 15: 7) and recounted the events of Acts 10, in the conversion of Cornelius, a story he had already told in Jerusalem (Acts 11). "Now therefore" he says "why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?" Then all the multitude kept silence and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul as they declared (verse 12) the miracles and wonders which God had wrought among the Gentiles by them, a recitation doubtless of what we read of in Acts 13 and 14. Thus when they were finished James gives the summing up (verses 13-21) giving quotes from Old Testament Scriptures to confirm that what the Lord was now doing was in accord with what had already been foretold long before, that God would visit the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His Name. Doubtless this is a model brothers' meeting, beginning with tumult and ending in peace, the reverse sadly of what has too often been proved in brothers' meetings since that time! Here at least (Acts 15) there was peace, and we notice that letters were written and sent by chosen men to Antioch. The wording here should not be overlooked "the apostles and elders, with the whole church (verse 22). It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord (verse 25). It seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us" (verse 28).
We can well understand why such a letter, sent by, and with, such apostles and brethren, men that had hazarded their lives for the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, (verse 26) supported too by chief men among the brethren (verse 22), rejoiced the hearts of the brethren and we read the multitude gathered together "rejoiced for the consolation". (verse 31).