After the death of Judas who betrayed Jesus, the disciples gathered to select his successor. They prayed for divine discernment in making their selection. They cast lots, and the lot fell on Matthias. I’ve always wondered about this. True, the conversion of Paul was in the future. But why didn’t the Spirit direct them to wait for him? This ignores the fact, however, that Paul wouldn’t meet the criteria laid out in Acts 1 for being an apostle.
So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us. One of these men must become with us a witness to the resurrection.Acts 1:21-22
Paul would, however, join the cause later on. Called directly by Jesus in a visionary experience on the road to Damascus, he would go on to become arguably the most famous apostle. And while he hadn’t spent time on earth with him, he would go on to have further encounters with the risen Jesus. During these encounters, he claimed that Jesus revealed the gospel to him directly. Thus, he didn’t receive his information or authority from any man.
For I didn’t receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.Galatians 1:12
For this reason, I want to take a close look at a controversy that occurred on Paul’s 1st missionary journey. He was traveling with Barnabas, John Mark, and others. Acts 13 and 14 reports on this journey, but our story starts in Act 15.
Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark, but Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone on with them to the work.Acts 15:37-38
This dispute turns out to be the bitter breakup of the team of Paul and Barnabas. There has been much speculation about what caused John Mark to leave. Why was Paul so insistent that John Mark couldn’t rejoin them? The text doesn’t answer our question. Hence, there has been much speculation. Was it spiritual warfare? Homesickness perhaps? Either answer could work, but we just don’t know. What we do know is that Paul and Barnabas continued on without him.
After a brief stop in Antioch of Pasidia, the group traveled to Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, and Lycaonia before heading off to Syrian Antioch. Moreover, this is where our story unfolds. Acts 15 says “some men came from Judea” and were teaching the Christians there that they must be circumcised according to the custom of Moses in order to be saved. A big debate ensues, which culminates with the first recorded church council in Jerusalem, recorded in this chapter. However, I want to take a look at Paul’s account of this dispute.
What really happened in Antioch?
Galatians 2 gives us a fuller account of the events that occurred in Antioch. He claims in verse 2 that he went to Jerusalem “because of a revelation” and explained the Gospel that he preached. Here, Paul seems to be saying he would not back down from his gospel because it had been revealed to him. Verse 4 is very telling, and shows some animosity on the part of Paul.
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 even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.Galatians 2:3-4
Why does Paul think that these “false brothers” were secretly brought in? And why in verse 2 does he say that he explained the gospel he was preaching to them, to make sure he was not running in vain? Was Paul preaching a different gospel than they were? Is this why he calls it “my gospel?”
It’s hard to read this account without connecting these dots. It’s speculative, sure. But did John Mark leave the group and go to Jerusalem to report that Paul was teaching the Gentiles that they didn’t need to be circumcised and follow the law to follow Jesus? This would have caused James to send the men Paul calls “false brothers” and would explain why Paul refers to them as “spies.” What happens next lends further to this interpretation.
The Antioch Feud.
IN verses 11-13 Paul calls Peter a hypocrite, and accuses Barnabas of being deceived. What is clear is that everyone sided with the Jews from Jerusalem, leaving Paul standing by himself with the Gentiles. We are often told that the dispute was over Jews eating with Gentiles, but this sells the story short. Here is what Paul says to Peter in verse 14.
If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?Galatians 2:14
This fight isn’t over table manners. It’s over conversion. In Acts 15:1 we’re told that the Jews from Judea were teaching that unless you were circumcised (became a Jew) you couldn’t be saved. Here in Galatians 2 Paul says that Peter was trying to force the Gentiles to live like Jews, even though he had been living like a Gentile. So what happened here?
It appears that Paul had a different Gospel than James and the Jerusalem Jews had. However, he had received his gospel directly from Jesus at a later date. So perhaps Peter and Barnabas accepted this and carried on. John Mark went to James to inform him of the new teaching. James sends men that Paul calls spies to see if this is true. They inform Peter and company that James is not on board with this new teaching, so he and Barnabas return to the old gospel, one of separation between Jews and Gentiles. Paul disagrees, so the matter is debated in the Jerusalem Council.
The Jerusalem Council
Acts 15:2 implies that Barnabas sided with Paul. This seems to conflict with Paul’s version of events in Galatians 2. However, Acts 15:7 shows that Peter did lobby for Paul at the council, and Barnabas likewise spoke highly of their success among the Gentiles. The meeting ended with a compromise and a letter being sent to the Gentile churches that shows the decision that James reached.
For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements; that you abstain from idols, and from blood, and from what is strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these you will do well.Acts 15:28-29
The first thing to note is what goes unsaid. It’s taken for granted here that Jews still have to follow the law. This isn’t even debated. The second noteworthy thing is that Gentiles have a law to follow as well. This is in the Jewish tradition of “God Fearers” or “Righteous Gentiles.” Those who follow God by keeping a moral law for the nations, but not becoming circumcised and part of the Jewish nation. Today, these are called the “Noahide Laws.”
But did Paul live up to this agreement?
In 1 Corinthians 8 Paul teaches that it is acceptable to eat meat sacrificed to idols. In verse 8 he says “we are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” Again in chapter 10 verse 25 he says to “eat whatever is sold in the market,” a reference to meat sacrificed to idols. In 27 and 28 he says it’s ok to eat it in front of unbelievers, unless they point out that it is sacrificed meat. He also says to avoid it if it offends the conscience of another.
Why is Paul teaching a message that directly contradicts the first church council decision? Again, we must remember that Paul has a more recent revelation from Jesus. It is possible, therefore, that he knows something that they don’t. This issue would rear it’s head one more time between Paul and James in a final standoff in Jerusalem which results in the Romans saving Paul from the Jews, and his arrest and eventual execution.
Paul and James meet again:
In Acts 21 Paul returns to Jerusalem where James informs him that the Jesus followers there are “zealous for the law” (verse 20) and have been informed that Paul teaches Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake the law (verse 21). He offers Paul a chance to disprove these accusations by observing a Jewish purification ritual. Paul agrees, but this doesn’t likely represent a change of heart. In 1 Corinthians 9:20 Paul says “to those under the law I became as on under the law, though not being myself under the law.”
Paul performs the ritual, but the events unfold badly for him. He is arrested and hauled off to save his life from the angry mobs. Eventual he is hauled off to Rome to stand trial. Church tradition has it that he would there be executed by Nero. And thus ends our story, were it not for one more thing. We couldn’t possibly know if James is correct, and followers of Jesus should follow the law, or if Paul is correct in saying that Jesus freed us from the law. The only way to know for sure is if Jesus weighed in on the topic. Did he reveal to Paul that the law is over, or was Paul confused, deceived, or lying?
Jesus weighs in.
Around 30 years after this fateful day in Jerusalem, a man named John had been banished to the Isle of Pathmos. He has a revelation from God, writing the book that reflects this in it’s name. It starts off with an introduction, then we get letters to seven churches. One of them is the church in Thyatira. Here John is told by an angel to write “The words of the Son of God” which would be Jesus.
In Chapter 2 verse 20 he calls out a prophetess referred to as “Jezebel” who teaches the church to “practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.” Verse 24 is fascinating.
But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold to this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say I do not lay on you any other burden.Revelation 2:24
It’s interesting that we get the same language seen in Acts 15. Both in the statement of the offense, and in the qualifier of laying no other burden on them. What is clear is that in this, one of the latest New Testament books to be written, the Acts 15 decision still stands. It is a sin to eat meat sacrificed to idols. Thus it is clear that believers are not free from the law of Moses. Jews must still be observant, and Gentiles must accord themselves to the Noahide Laws.
Where do we go from here?
Applying Occam’s Razor to this problem leads me to the conclusion that Paul is wrong. his is the only solution that makes sense of all of the data without unnecessarily multiplying entities. Since we don’t know why John Mark left Paul, we are forced to assume either way. But assuming illness, unreliability, or spiritual attack leaves us wondering why Paul and Barnabas couldn’t resolve their disagreement.If it were a matter of reliability, it seems logical that Barnabas could be reasoned into backing down. Were it health or spiritual attack, we could expect Paul to give him a second chance. This doesn’t mean that it would happen, but it’s a reasonable assumption.
If, however, we assume John Mark had a theological disagreement, everything falls in place. Paul sees Barnabas as persuadable since he argued on his side. John Mark would prevent such persuasion. So here’s how I see this playing out.
What likely happened.
Paul and Barnabas are on their mission. Paul starts preaching his freedom from the law message, which Peter and Barnabas question. Paul claims it was revealed to him by Jesus, and they accept this explanation. John Mark does not. He leaves for Jerusalem to confirm this change in the gospel with James. James is opposed to the change, so he sends people to confirm the report and order this teaching to stop. Peter and Barnabas agree, reverting to the old message. Paul refuses, seeing the men as spies. He continues to preach his freedom gospel and everyone is ordered back to Jerusalem to resolve the matter.
In Jerusalem, Peter and Barnabas defend their actions by citing similar revelations. However, James insists on moving forward without a change in the gospel. After agreeing to honor the longstanding Jewish traditions in regards to God Fearers, James sends a letter to the gentile churches to ensure they know about the associated laws. He sends Paul and Barnabas back out trusting John Mark to report any deviations. Paul, not wanting peering eyes over his shoulder, refuses John Mark so the pair splits.
Paul returns to his churches, finding his way challenged by the believers who have been informed that he was in error. It appears that the church in Corinth asked him for letters of recommendation before coming (2 Cor 3:1). “Oh foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” he asks in Galatians 3:1. The pressure builds until, on a return trip to Jerusalem, James demands that he purify himself and come under the law again. He reminds Paul about the letter that was sent to the Gentiles, then sends a letters to all the Jews in the Diaspora to inform them that Paul’s teaching is wrong.
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion; Greetings.James 1:1
He uses the same passage from Genesis that Paul used to say we are saved by faith alone to inform those Jews that faith without the works of the law is dead. The rift is now so deep that when Paul is arrested and accused of being a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes (Jewish Jesus followers, Acts 24:5) he disputes this claim by identifying himself as belonging to a sect called “The Way” (Acts 24:14).
In Galatians 1, Paul rants against the Galatians for turning away from his gospel to “another gospel” that was given to them by “some who want to trouble you and distort the gospel of Christ.” He tells them to reject any teaching other than his own. “But even if we or an angel from heaven preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” he declares in verse 6. Did he have any reason to believe an angel from heaven would oppose his gospel? According to Revelation 2, one did.
Saul of Tarsus was a man on a mission. His mission was to destroy the church that Jesus had built and James was running. The book of Acts tells us of his conversion. In context, we are forced to consider that Saul never had a change of heart, only a change of name and tactics. Perhaps Saul decided that the best way to destroy the movement was with another name and another gospel. Because if Revelation is to be believed, his gospel didn’t come from Jesus.