When Paul and Barnabas first set out on their missionary journey from Antioch, Mark, Barnabas’ nephew, was with them, but something occurred that caused him to turn around and leave the team. Nevertheless, instead of returning to Antioch from which he had come, he returned to Jerusalem. I believe this is important to know, because it pertains to the reason for Paul’s letter to these churches. When Mark returned to Jerusalem, whether by design through a misunderstanding of Paul’s methods, or by innocent remarks made to high ranking Jews at Jerusalem concerning his experiences with Paul, Mark caused a great deal of trouble for the Gentile churches wherever they were. This did not become evident, until Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch from Galatia. It was at this time that men from James had come to Antioch to check out the Gentile churches there, and it seems that circumcision became a very big issue.
What I mean by circumcision is not merely the operation on the flesh, but the whole idea of having to become a Jew before one could be saved. This proposition doesn’t seem an important issue for us today, but it was back in the 1st century CE. We need to recall that the Jewish faith was the only faith ever begun by God, himself. It is only logical, according to that premise, that one MUST become a Jew in order to be saved. However, Paul’s Gospel—not a different Gospel from that of the Apostles—did not include Jewish traditions, which included the annual Holy Days, washings concerning ceremonial cleanliness, kosher foods etc. All these were important to the Jews and for good reason. They pertained to things God had done for them long ago, from the times of Abraham and Moses. It had to do with their Jewish history with God.
Paul recognized that this would have little meaning to the Gentiles. It was not part of their history. It was not part of their ancient traditions. So, Paul boiled down the Gospel to the least common denominator, so to speak, and built the foundation of Christ from there. The Law and all of its ceremonies pointed to Jesus, and that could be easily understood by the Jews, if they repented before God. However, before the Gentiles would be able to see what the Jews saw in the Law, they would have to become Jews and study the Hebrew Scriptures as translated in the Septuagint. There would be nothing inherently wrong with this, but it would be tedious and unnecessary for the Gentiles to learn and practice these things before they could come to know Jesus as their King. All that was really necessary to establish a relationship with Jesus, the God of Israel, would be to tell his story, as it appears in the Gospel narratives we have today.
The Gentiles already knew right from wrong in most cases. Paul later showed in his letters that the Law has been written upon the hearts of all men. There is no excuse for our rebellion against God. Paul’s Gospel to the Gentiles calls for repentance from that rebellion and submission to Jesus their King, confessing him openly in their walk before men, and believing he died for out wicked deeds and that God raised him to life in order to give us eternal life. In a nutshell this is the Gospel without the trimmings of Jewish tradition (or any of the Gentile “trimmings” we have added since Paul’s day). Paul laid down the theology in Romans 10:9-10, and the practical application is spelled out in Luke 23:40-42. All that we add to this is commentary. Nothing can be added to this with the intent of making it necessary for salvation, nor can any part of this ‘least common denominator’ be taken away and still be called the Gospel of Christ, or the Gospel of the Kingdom etc. This is it.
As a result of Mark’s returning to Jerusalem, the Antioch church sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to iron out the apparent differences between his Gospel and what the men from James seem to believe it should be. The result was the first church council as reported in Acts 15. It was around this time that Paul understood that what occurred in Antioch was not an isolated incident. Whoever the men from James represented had sent parties to churches in Syria, Cilicia and apparently as far as Galatia. James denied he had sent these men and said so in letters he had given to Paul to show to those churches. He also sent along representatives from the Jerusalem church to make it plain that Paul hadn’t forged the letters, but that his Gospel to Gentiles is the very same Gospel that the Apostles preach to Jews, except for the Jewish traditions, which are not necessary for the Gentiles to observe.
In future posts I will be elaborating on what occurred at the Jerusalem council and other matters in Acts as they pertain to the letter to the Galatians. May God bless my effort in this undertaking and help all of us to come to a better understanding of his truth, submitting to his Spirit within each of us.