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Bible Commentaries

F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary

Galatians 2



Verses 1-21

OUR CHAPTER FALLS quite simply into two parts. First, verses Galatians 2:1-10, in which the Apostle recounts what happened on the occasion of his second visit to Jerusalem after his conversion. Second, verses Galatians 2:11-21, in which he tells of an incident that happened at Antioch not long after his second visit to Jerusalem, and which had a very definite bearing upon the point at issue with the Galatians.

The first visit was about three years after his conversion (Galatians 1:18), so the second, being fourteen years later, was about seventeen years after that time, and is evidently the occasion as to which we have much information in Acts 15:1-41. That passage therefore, may profitably be read before proceeding further. From a careful reading several interesting details appear.

Acts 15:1-41 begins with mentioning “certain men who came down from Judaea,” who taught circumcision as essential to salvation. They are not termed “brethren,” we notice. In our chapter Paul unhesitatingly labels them “false brethren unawares brought in.” Thus early do we find unconverted men getting amongst the saints of God, in spite of apostolic vigilance and care! It is sad when they are brought in unawares in spite of care. Sadder still when such principles are professed and practised as leave the door open for them to enter.

In Acts we read that “they determined” that a visit to Jerusalem was needful. But here Paul gives us a view behind the scenes of activity and travel, and shows us that it was “by revelation” that he went up. The temptation might have been strong upon him to meet these false brethren and vanquish them at Antioch, but it was revealed to him by the Lord that he should stop disputation and carry the discussion up to Jerusalem, where the views his opponents pressed were most strongly held. It was a bold move; but it was one which in the wisdom of God preserved unity in the church. As a result of his obedience to the revelation the question was settled against the contentions of these false brethren in the very place where most of their sympathizers were. To have so settled it amongst the Gentiles at Antioch might easily have provoked a rupture.

Further, in Acts 15:1-41 it is just stated that “certain other of them” went up with Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem. Our chapter reveals that amongst these “certain other” was Titus, a Greek. This of course raised the point at issue in its acutest form. The apostle gave no quarter to his opponents. He did not submit to them for an hour, and in result Titus was not compelled to be circumcised.

This being so, Paul’s action in regard to Timothy, related in Acts 16:1-3, is the more remarkable. It is an illustration of how that which has to be strenuously resisted under certain circumstances may be conceded under other circumstances. In the case of Titus circumcision was demanded in order to establish a principle which cut at the very root of the Gospel.

In the case of Timothy no such principle was at stake, the whole question having been authoritatively settled, and Paul did it that Timothy might have liberty of service amongst Jews as well as Gentiles. By birth Timothy was half a Jew and the Apostle made him completely a Jew, as it were, that he might “gain the Jews” (1 Corinthians 9:20). To Paul himself and to the Corinthians, and so to us, both circumcision and uncircumcision are “nothing” (1 Corinthians 7:19).

It is possible that you might observe some servant of Christ acting after this fashion today. Pause a moment before you roundly accuse him of gross inconsistency. It may after all be that he is acting with divinely-given discernment in cases where you have as yet perceived no difference. The apostle speaks of “Our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus.” It was liberty to refuse circumcision where legal bondage was involved, and yet a year or so later to practise it when nothing of principle was involved.

Then again during this visit to Jerusalem Paul took opportunity to convey formally to the other apostles the Gospel which he had preached among the Gentiles. Though he had received it directly from the Lord he was not above conceiving that possibly error might have crept into his understanding of the revelation. This is indicated in the latter part of verse Galatians 2:2. In effect however it was far otherwise. The most instructed amongst the apostles and elders at Jerusalem had nothing to add to Paul’s gospel when they conferred upon the point. The rather they recognized that Paul was clearly called of God to carry the Gospel into the Gentile world, while

Peter had a similar commission in regard to the Jew. Hence the three apostolic leaders, perceiving the grace given to Paul, expressed the fullest fellowship and sympathy with him in his work.

This fact had a very definite bearing on the point at issue with the Galatians. If the men who had been at work in Galatia attacked Paul as being an unauthorized upstart, he was able to counter this by showing that he had received his message from the Lord by first-hand revelation. This established his authority. If on the other hand they attacked him as a man proceeding thus on his own authority and so being in opposition to those who were apostles before him, he countered this lie by the fact that James, Peter and John had shown fullest confidence in him and fellowship with him after thorough conference had taken place.

It remained for him to show that there had been a time when even Peter had yielded somewhat to the influence of men similar to those now opposing Paul, and to relate how he had opposed him then, and the grounds on which he had done so.

There is no mention in the Acts of this visit of Peter to Antioch, but it evidently happened after the decision of the council in Jerusalem as narrated in Acts 15:1-41. In that council Peter had argued in favour of the acceptance of Gentile converts without the law of Moses being imposed upon them. He had then spoken of the law as “a yoke... which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear.” At Antioch however when certain came down from James holding strict views as to the value of circumcision he no longer would eat with the Gentile believers but withdrew himself. His example had great weight and others followed it—even Barnabas who had formerly stood with Paul, as recorded in Acts 15:2; Acts 15:12.

To many doubtless such action would have seemed a very small matter— just a little prejudice to be condoned, a fad to be smiled at. To Paul it was far otherwise. He perceived that under this apparently small question of how Peter took his food, grave principles were at stake, and that Peter’s action was not upright “according to the truth of the Gospel.”

Oh, that we may all seize the point so strongly enforced here! Departure from the truth, even of the gravest kind, is generally presented to us under cover of seemingly trifling and innocent circumstances. Most of us would have been tempted to exclaim, “Oh, Paul, what an exacting man you are! How difficult to please! Why make such a fuss over a small detail? If Peter wants now to eat only with Jews, why not let him? Why disturb our peace at Antioch and make things unhappy?” We are so often ignorant of Satan’s devices. He sees to it that we shall be diverted from truth over something of an apparently harmless nature. The railway engine runs from the main line into a siding over very fine points.

Incidentally let us at this point take note that the idea that church in the apostolic age was the abode of peace and free of all contention has no support from Scripture. From the outset the truth had to be won and maintained through conflict—a great deal of it internal, and not merely with the world without. We have no right to expect absence of conflict and trouble today. Occasions are sure to arise when peace can only be purchased by compromise, and he who sees most, and hence is constrained to raise his voice in protest, must be prepared to be accused of uncharitableness. Failing such protest peace is maintained, but it is the peace of stagnation and spiritual death. The quietest spot in the throbbing heart of London is the city mortuary! So beware!

If we find ourselves in a position where we feel morally bound to raise our voices, let us pray earnestly that we may be able to do it in a way similar to Paul. “When I saw... I said unto Peter...” Our tendency always is to launch our complaints into the ear of someone other than the culprit himself. Notice, for instance, in Mark 2:1-28, that when the Pharisees object to the action of Jesus they complain to His disciples (ver. 16), and when to the action of His disciples, they complain to the Lord (vers. 23, 24). We shall do well to make it a rule, when remonstrance is needed, to make our remonstrance directly to the person concerned, rather than behind his back.

Paul however did this “before them all.” The reason for this is that Peter’s defection had already affected many others and so become a public matter. It would be a mistake in a multitude of cases to make public remonstrance. Many a defection or difficulty has not become public, and if met faithfully and graciously in a private way with the person concerned it may never become public at all, and thus much trouble and possible scandal be avoided. Public defection however must be met publicly.

Paul began his protest by asking Peter a question based upon his earlier mode of life, before the sudden alteration. Peter had abandoned the strict Jewish customs in favour of the freer life of the Gentiles, as he himself had stated in Acts 10:28. How then could he now consistently retreat from this position in a way that was tantamount to saying that after all Gentiles should live after the customs of the Jews? This question we have recorded in verse 14.

In verses Galatians 2:15-16 we have the apostle’s assertion which succeeded his question. In this assertion Paul could link Peter with himself and Peter could not deny it. “WE,” he says. “We, who are Jews by nature” have recognized that justification is not reached by “the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ,” and hence have turned from law to Christ and been justified by Him. Thank God, that was so!

Now comes a second question. If it were true, as Peter’s action seemed to suggest, that even when standing in all the virtue of Christ’s work we still need something, in the way of law-keeping or the observance of Jewish customs, to complete our justification, is not Christ then discredited? He puts the proposition with extreme vigour of language,—is He not even “the Minister of sin” instead of the Minister of justification? To ask such a question is to answer it. It is impossible! Hence he adds, “Away with the thought,” or “God forbid.”

This was followed by a second assertion in verse Galatians 2:18, a statement which must have fallen as a sledge-hammer on Peter’s conscience. Peter’s action had inferred that Christ might be the Minister of sin; but it also was without a doubt of the nature of building up again the wall of partition, between Jew and Gentile who are in Christ, that the Gospel had thrown down, and which Peter himself had destroyed by his former action in the house of Cornelius. Whichever was right, Peter was wrong somewhere. If he was right now, he was wrong formerly. If right formerly, he was wrong now. He stood convicted as a transgressor.

As a matter of fact he was wrong now. Formerly he had acted as instructed of God in a vision. Now he was acting impulsively under the influence of the fear of man.

In these few words from the lips of Paul the Spirit of God had revealed the true inwardness of Peter’s action, however innocent it may have appeared to most. Only two questions and two statements, but how effective they were! They quite destroyed Peter’s false position.

Not content with this however the Spirit of God led Paul to forthwith proclaim the true position. He had perceived at the outset that Peter and his followers “walked not uprightly according to the truth of the Gospel,” so now he very plainly, yet in fewest possible words, states the truth of the Gospel. He states it moreover not as a matter of doctrine but as a matter of experience—his own experience. He does not now say “we,” but “I,” which occurs no less than seven times in verses Galatians 2:19-20.

In the Acts we have striking examples of the preaching of the Gospel through the lips of Paul. In Romans 1:1-32; Romans 2:1-29; Romans 3:1-31; Romans 4:1-25; Romans 5:1-21; Romans 6:1-23; Romans 7:1-25; Romans 8:1-39 we have the exposition of the Gospel from his pen. In Galatians 1:1-24 we have the defence of the Gospel— by setting forth its characteristic features, which hall-mark it, as it were. Now we are to consider the truth of the Gospel.

In the closing verses of this second chapter, Paul speaks for himself alone. Previously (verses Galatians 2:15-17) he had said, “we,” since he spoke of truth generally acknowledged by Christians, Peter included. But now he comes to truth which Peter’s action had challenged, and so he could not assume that Peter acknowledged it. However truth it was, and Paul standing in the enjoyment and power of it could set it forth in this personal and experimental way.

At that moment Peter had the law before his soul: he was living to the law. “For myself,” says Paul, in effect, “I have God, and not law before my soul, and am living to Him.” How much greater is God, who gave the law—God, now revealed in Christ—than the law He gave. But what set Paul free from the law, under which once he had been, as well as Peter? Death had set him free. He had died to the law, and that by the law’s own act! This is stated in verse 19.

Nevertheless, here he was very much alive, and boldly confronting Peter! How then had he died to the law? And in what sense was it true that he had died through the law? Both these questions are answered in that great statement, “I am crucified with Christ.”

In those words we have Paul seizing upon the truth of the Gospel, and giving it an intensely personal application to himself. The Lord Jesus, in His death, not only was the believer’s Substitute, bearing his sins, but also thoroughly identified Himself with us in our sinful state, being made sin for us, though knowing no sin Himself. So really and truly did this take place that one of the things we are to know, as a matter of Christian doctrine, is that “our old man is crucified with Him” (Romans 6:6). The crucifixion of Christ is therefore the crucifixion of all that we were as fallen children of Adam. But here we have Paul’s personal appropriation of this. As crucified with Christ he had died to the law.

Then again the crucifixion of Christ was not merely the act of evil men. Viewed from the divine standpoint, the very essence of it is seen to be that act of God whereby He was made sin for us, and wherein was borne for us the curse of the law (see Galatians 3:13). As dying under the curse of the law, Christ died through the law, and as crucified with Christ Paul was able to say that he had died to the law through the law, in order that he might live unto God.

The force of this great passage may perhaps become clearer to us if we consider the five prepositions used.

1. Unto, which indicates the end in view. To live unto God is to live with God as the End of one’s existence.

2. With, indicates identification, or association. We are crucified with Christ by reason of that complete identification which He effected in His death for us. Consequently His death was our death. We died with Him.

3. In, which here signifies character. Though crucified we live. We are still living people on earth, yet we no longer live the old character of life. We live a life of a new order, a life, the character of which, summed up in one word, is CHRIST. Saul of Tarsus had been crucified with Christ. Yet the individual known as Saul of Tarsus was still living. Still living, yet in another character entirely. As you observed him you saw not the Saul-of-Tarsus character coming into expression, but Christ. In keeping with this he did not retain his old name, but soon after his conversion he became known as Paul, which means, “Little one.” He must be little if Christ is to live in him.

4. By, which introduces us to the Object that controlled Paul’s soul, and made this new character of life possible. Presently, when the life we now live in the flesh—that is, in our present mortal bodies—is over, we shall live by the sight of the Son of God. Meanwhile we live by the faith of Him. If faith is in activity with us He is made a living bright reality before our souls. The more He is thus before us objectively, that is, as

“... the object bright and fair,

To fill and satisfy the heart.” the more will He be seen in us subjectively.

The Lord Chancellor’s “Great seal” is a remarkable object. If you wished to see it however, you would probably find it impossible to get access to it. Possibly they would say, “No, we cannot let you see the seal itself, but look at this large spot of wax affixed to this state document. Here you virtually see the seal, for it has been impressed into it.” The wax has been subject to the pressure of the seal. You see the seal subjectively expressed, though you could not see it objectively. This may illustrate our point, and show how others may see Christ living in us, if as Object He is before our souls.

5. For, which here is the preposition of substitution. It introduces us to that which was the constraining power and motive of Paul’s wonderful life. The love of the Son of God constrained him, and that love had expressed itself in His sacrificial and substitutionary death.

We may sum up the matter thus:—Paul’s heart was filled with the love of the Son of God who had died for him. He not only understood his identification with Christ in His death, but he heartily accepted it, in all that it implied, and he found his satisfying Object in the Son of God in glory. Consequently the sentence of death lay upon all that he was by nature, and Christ lived in him and characterized his life, and thus God Himself, as revealed in Christ, had become the full End of his existence.

Thus it was with Paul, but is it thus with us? That our old man has been crucified is as true for us as for Paul. We have died with Christ even as he had, if indeed we are really and truly believers. But have we taken it up in our experience as Paul did, so that it is to us not only a matter of Christian doctrine (highly important as that is in its place) but also a matter of rich spiritual experience, which transforms and ennobles our lives? The plain truth is that most of us have only done so in a measure which is pitifully small. And the secret of this? The secret clearly is that we have been so little captivated by the sense of His great love. Our realization of the wonder of His sacrifice for us is so feeble. Our convictions as to the horror of our sinfulness were not very deep, and hence our conversions were comparatively of a shallow nature. If we track things back to their source, the explanation lies just here, we believe. Let us all sing with far more earnestness,

“Revive Thy work, O Lord!

Exalt Thy precious Name;

And may Thy love in every heart,

Be kindled to aflame!”

If in each of our hearts love is kindled to a flame, we shall make progress in the right direction.

The Apostle’s closing words, in the last verse of out chapter, plainly implied that the position Peter had taken was of such a nature as to lead to the “frustration” or “setting aside” of the grace of God. It would imply that after all righteousness could come by the law, and lead to the supposition that Christ had died “in vain,” or, “for nothing.” What a calamitous conclusion!

Yet it was the logical conclusion. And, having reached it, the moment had arrived for a very pointed appeal to the Galatians. This appeal we have in the opening verses of chapter 3.


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These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hole, Frank Binford. "Commentary on Galatians 2:4". "F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary". 1947.

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